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The United Kingdom should learn from mistakes made by the United States in setting up mechanisms to tackle research malpractice, a leading US expert told delegates at the UK's first multidisciplinary conference on research fraud last week.
Nicholas Stenek, a consultant to the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and professor emeritus of the University of Michigan, said that the key policy question was to determine what needs to be done to ensure that improper practices don't compromise the public's investment in research.
Stressing that his comments were his own views and not those of the ORI, he said that the US systems were “professionally oriented, not publicly oriented—[to] protect researchers, not the public—and don't have the objective of reducing waste.”
Professor Stenek said that the ORI was limited to investigating fraud, data fabrication, and plagiarism—the federal definition of misconduct—and not other types of research misconduct. The remit of the National Science Foundation's Office of Inspector General included other types of misconduct, but unlike the ORI this body had other, competing responsibilities.
A number of studies that looked at the integrity of clinical trials had led to a new understanding that, although fraud, fabrication, and plagiarism could not be ignored, questionable research practices were much more common, wasted more funds, and could seriously compromise public policy and public welfare, Professor Stenek said.
Researchers mentioned a range of questionable practices, such as failure to randomise allocation, tampering with treatment packs so that allocation was no longer masked, and selective withdrawals on the basis of knowledge of allocation.
“We have to spend much more time studying the research record and research practices to see why researchers do what they do,” he added.
He questioned whether the training that US researchers get in research ethics was given in the right way. “Where people form their values is probably in the laboratory setting. Where people are getting their training is out of the laboratory, probably through a web based course.”
Professor Stenek's warning comes as pressure mounts in the UK for a body with powers to investigate research misconduct. The UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences, which was set up in April 2006, has no investigatory powers but aims to help universities, the NHS, and other employers and sponsors to be self regulating.
The panel's Office for Research Integrity, chaired by Ian Kennedy, is developing a code of practice, a register of advisers, and a standardised procedure for carrying out investigations.
It will also provide support for whistleblowers, including a confidential helpline launched last week (see News, doi: 10.1136/bmj.39213.427454.DB)
Professor Kennedy, who chaired last week's conference and who is chairman of the Healthcare Commission, said that the Office for Research Integrity would examine whether an investigative body was needed. He said that the first thing that needed to be known was the extent of the problem and why it was happening.
“The moment you understand why, you begin to build the barriers, the defensive mechanisms. The consensus seems to be that prevention and education is a better response than retribution and punishment.”