Diminished focus on scapegoats – scrutiny of the entire research environment

More focus on the institutional environment and less on individual researchers in the assessment of research misconduct – and protection for whistle-blowers should be increased.
These are some new points in the revised code of conduct for research integrity – points developed in a process led by Göran Hermerén. The EU Commission is now launching the code as a benchmark for those applying for funding from Horizon 2020

Göran Hermerén, post-retirement professor of Medical Ethics at LU.

Göran Hermerén, post-retirement professor of Medical Ethics at LU, has for several years led the working group for science and ethics within All European Academies (ALLEA). It has been a broad working group and he points out that it is only now that public and private research organisations have agreed on the principles for integrity in research. Education in research ethics is emphasised and that it should be recurrent and not aimed solely at junior researchers. The entire research environment, like preventive work, is important.

“If a doctoral student fabricates or manipulates data, you may wonder where their supervisors are. The same applies for an individual researcher who is often one of a group among colleagues. The entire environment has now become more important than just singling out individual scapegoats”, says Göran Hermerén.

The research landscape has also changed in terms of its methods and goals. Open access, open data and big data entail both opportunities and problems.

“There are also factors in the research community’s assessment system, not least ‘publish or perish’ – a culture with a focus on quantity that can tempt researchers to take short cuts that are not compatible with good research practice”, says Göran Hermerén.

One example is “salami publication”, splitting a research article into several smaller parts in order to obtain more publications.

On the question of whether it has become easier to cheat in research, he replies that it has become more difficult to identify cheating.

“There is a crisis in research regarding reproducibility of research results”, he says. “And there is also a grey zone between carelessness, incompetence, stress and intent to deceive, where it’s often one person’s word against another’s.”

According to Göran Hermerén, making changes to the qualification system requires knowledge on regulations and ethical principles, increased awareness and education in how to handle ethical problems. He proposes recurrent training and special seminars for supervisors in parallel with the education that doctoral students receive.

Göran Hermerén also takes up the EU’s new data protection regulation, GDPR, which will affect researchers at all faculties. He also maintains that the ethical education provided  must be differentiated depending on the particular discipline.

“It should be based on current examples taken from research the participants are familiar with. This makes the message relevant and easy to assimilate”, he says.

The new European code of conduct also addresses the whistle-blower’s vulnerable situation. They are often subjected to reprisals and need increased protection. In many places, including Lund, it is possible to report research misconduct anonymously, but Göran Hermerén asserts there are grounds to be sceptical about this.

“You must be certain that the report has been made in good faith and not to smear enemies”, he says.

Sanctions pose another problem. Misconduct is not seen as a violation of the law and seldom leads to direct punishment. Being ostracised by colleagues and having difficulties to obtain future funding have been regarded as sufficient. Göran Hermerén thinks that sanctions must be imposed, but there is to be a reasonable sense of proportion between the degree of the offence and the sanction.

“Greater progress has been made in the USA – but we don’t even have a national consensus.”

As chair of the Swedish Research Council’s Ethics Board, Göran Hermerén long ago proposed that universities should introduce an ethics ombudsman to handle accusations of research misconduct (in accordance with the model used in Germany). Although the Karolinska Institute has recently adopted this model, no other university has yet done so.

Text: Maria Lindh

Photo: Catrin Jakobsson

Facts: “The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity” replaces the previous version from 2011. The EU Commission has implemented the translation of the code of conduct into all member state languages, and translations to Japanese and Turkish are also under way.