Europe needs ongoing efforts to promote research integrity

LERU universities care deeply about the integrity with which research in Europe, indeed world-wide, is designed, reviewed, carried out and reported. Commissioner Carlos Moedas indicated at the June 2015 ERA conference that ‘the time has come for a European initiative on research integrity.’ LERU would welcome further support for universities and other research organisations to share good practice, to further develop information and training and to take positive steps to foster integrity. We would, however, oppose any EU initiatives that would lead to heavy-handed steering, more regulation or punitive measures for universities.

The starting point for the Commission should be to document and publish what steps the Member States (including their principal research organisations) have taken to foster research integrity, encourage discussion and learning across Europe, and help those Member States that have less experience or less well-developed research integrity policies and advisory services.

LERU’s Expert Group on Research Integrity considers that there are many good approaches to research integrity by national governments and funding agencies in Europe. For example, theUK Concordat to Support Research Integrity provides a comprehensive national framework for good research conduct and its governance: the public funders of research have set out clear accountabilities for research organisations and researchers; policies and systems are audited in cost-effective ways; and the UK Research Integrity Office provides information and training. The Danish Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, completed following extensive public consultation, provides the research community with a sound framework to promote commonly agreed principles and standards.

The Commission could seed fund consortia to develop research integrity policies, information and advisory services and training programmes. The outcomes can be made public, along the lines of the extensive range of resources and training material curated and made freely available by the US Office for Research Integrity (ORI). Future Horizon2020 grant agreements could reasonably require recipient organisations to (a) have developed their own research integrity code or adopted a national or other recognised code, (b) take responsibility for dealing effectively with concerns or alleged research misconduct, (c) respond promptly to any concerns raised by other parties directly with the Commission and referred onwards and (d) keep the Commission informed about the outcomes of cases, wherever appropriate. Handling/investigating allegations and taking action in proven cases should remain the responsibility of the universities and other research providers.

Whilst some people advocate for a single European-wide definition of research integrity, it seems doubtful this could be achieved. Protracted debates in the US led to the compromise Federal FFP definition of misconduct (i.e. Fabrication, Falsification and Plagiarism). However, misconduct, so defined, is not the same as ‘research which lacks integrity.’ Key principles are more important than definitions. Research-intensive universities, especially, like to develop their own standards and expectations and communicate these to their staff and students, making reference to external codes and definitions as appropriate. They wish to take ownership of research integrity given its importance to the research enterprise, research education, reputation and public trust.

We would not wish to see the term ‘research integrity’ become a catch-all for all aspects of good research practice. Important aspects of research, such as effective research data management, open data, open access to publications, quality doctoral research education, respecting equality and diversity, etc. do and should stand on their own merits. LERU has published advice papers on such topics. Each is already a distinct element of the plan to further progress the European Research Area (ERA). European policy-makers risk diluting efforts if too many such elements are wrapped into discussions about research integrity.

Similarly, what is sometimes termed ‘sloppy science’ – aka ‘poor quality’ research – should be dealt with as is. We should all look at what is taking place, the causes, the effects and ways to address it. There are no gains from seeing this as research which lacks integrity. It lacks rigour and quality.

Some commentators claim that research misconduct is endemic. Whilst LERU rejects such exaggeration and scaremongering, there are no grounds for complacency. Prof Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General LERU : “Europe needs ongoing efforts to promote research integrity, to understand through sound research the environmental and other factors which affect how people work, and to deal effectively with concerns and allegations. We need also to continue to pay due regard to promoting sound career pathways and to excellence in the way research is designed, reviewed at proposal stage, funded, conducted and reported. These are focal points for LERU.”

LERU was pleased to see research integrity on the agenda of the 21 July 2015 (informal) Competitiveness Council meeting, but unfortunately it is not on the Council agenda of October 1. Prof Alain Beretz, chair of LERU : “We hope that the Competitiveness Council of December 2015 will propose constructive, cost-effective initiatives of the kind suggested here, which strike the right note and are credible to research providers and researchers.”