Different options for a coordinated approach to research misconduct in Europe are outlined in a new report by the EMBO Science Policy Programme. The report, ‘Governance of research integrity: Options for a coordinated approach in Europe’ (1), includes an analysis of the current systems for the governance of research integrity in a number of countries, and identifies gaps that could be addressed with a more coordinated approach in Europe. It further explores the advantages and disadvantages of each role for such a body, as well as the pros and cons of different possible structures and funding sources. It also looks at the implementation of a possible European body by a number of European organizations already active in the area of research integrity. Other possible mechanisms to reach a more consistent approach to address misconduct are discussed in the report, including the coordination of procedures used by research performing organizations, funders and publishers. The policy project was supported by an international group of experts who provided input through interviews and in a workshop organised in partnership with the OECD Global Science Forum.
A number of national and institutional guidelines, frameworks and codes for research integrity have been developed in many European countries, and the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity sets out common principles for those documents. But the handling of cases of research misconduct is mostly under the responsibility of research institutions, which vary in their capacity and willingness to do that. The main obstacles in the handling of research misconduct at the level of institutional committees are conflicts of interest, fear of reputational damage, lack of time due to the voluntary nature of the task, and lack of expertise. Investigation committees in national bodies have the advantage that they are more distant from local researchers, so the risk of conflicts of interest is lower. However, they exist only in a couple of countries. The effect is that not all misconduct is addressed, and the level of thoroughness and objectivity of investigations is inconsistent across Europe.
Principal investigators, Researchers, Academic staff, Research institutions, Policy makers, Funders, Research Integrity Officers
The main options analysed are the establishment of permanent European bodies to support institutions in investigating, overviewing or advising on research misconduct investigations. A European body to carry out investigations on behalf of institutions would ensure that investigations are carried consistently, reduce the risk of conflicts of interest, allow expertise to develop, and professionalize the handling of cases. It would be particularly helpful for institutions that still do not have any structures or experience in handling research misconduct allegations. Some obstacles would have to be overcome for such a body to be effective. Institutions might be reluctant to expose internal problems for fear of damaging their reputation and losing their autonomy; national regulations might limit access to data; and some counties might not recognize its legitimacy.
A further option would be to set up an oversight body that would not conduct investigations but only review investigations carried out by institutions to make sure that they have followed appropriate procedures, previously agreed on internationally. This might motivate institutions to follow those procedures, and so it would bring more homogeneity in the handling of allegations across Europe. As well, an external check would help control and lower risks of conflict of interest. On the other hand, depending on its status, it might not be able to require an institution to redo a poorly conducted investigation, and if it did, this would require more resources for each investigation.
Another role that a European body could have is advisory. It could advise institutions on how to create structures and policies to prevent research misconduct and protect integrity, and it could even set up a database of experts to assist investigations committees. The main concern about such a body is that it might be appear redundant or in conflict with existing national advisory bodies.
(1) Bendiscioli & Garfinkel (2020) Governance of research integrity: Options for a coordinated approach in Europe. Accessed via: https://www.embo.org/documents/science_policy/governance_of_ri.pdf