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A confidential helpline has been established in the United Kingdom to offer advice and guidance to whistleblowers who think they may have uncovered cases of misconduct in medical research.
It will also be a source of expert advice to universities, the NHS, and private companies in helping them respond effectively to allegations of research misconduct.
The helpline, which was set up by the UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences and will be staffed by the Research Integrity Office, was launched last week at a meeting in Edinburgh.
Michael Farthing, chairman of the panel's planning group and pro-vice chancellor for medicine at the University of London, said that although cases of research misconduct are uncommon, they can have huge consequences in human and financial terms. He described the helpline as “an attempt to bring a bit more transparency to how we deal with research misconduct in the UK.”
He added, “We want to open up the debate, and this is another way of helping [to] do that.”
Professor Farthing said that nearly all of the major cases of research misconduct have been exposed by whistleblowers but that often such people did not know where to turn to for help. “Many of us who have been involved in this area have had quite a lot of personal experience of people who have phoned us in desperation because they have experienced frustration in their own institution. Having a third party involved—even in an advisory capacity—can unlock the situation.”
The helpline is intended to provide that sort of support. It will offer guidance in the first instance and can refer callers, if necessary, to an adviser chosen from a register of experts with wide experience of handling cases of misconduct.
Professor Farthing said it is difficult to predict how much use will be made of the helpline. “It may be 20-30 calls a year, but it could be considerably less. It is difficult to know how many people out there have concerns, but I would not expect [the number] to be enormous.”
All calls will be answered in the first instance by Andy Stainthorpe, the project's director and head of the Research Integrity Office. He said, “The telephone line is a quick and straightforward way of putting people in touch with the experts and will of course be totally confidential.”
The helpline's number is 0844 7700644 and is open 8 am to 8 pm, Monday to Friday. Messages can be left outside these hours.