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BMJ. 2007 September 15; 335(7619): 524–525.
PMCID: PMC1976536

Dealing with scientific misconduct

Xavier Bosch, consultant internist

Europe needs policies for good scientific practice and for investigating misconduct allegations

International awareness of scientific misconduct is low.1 Codes of good practice and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct involving research throughout Europe are either underdeveloped or non-existent.

To help resolve this problem, the first world conference on research integrity will take place in Lisbon on 16-19 September 2007 (http://tinyurl.com/2b54xo). It was organised by the US Office of Research Integrity and the European Science Foundation—an association of 78 scientific research organisations in 36 European countries. The event is an opportunity to discuss the harmonisation of policies on scientific misconduct at European and international level.

Unlike in the United States, where the Office of Research Integrity oversees allegations of scientific misconduct involving research supported by US Public Health Service funds, oversight of research in Europe is fragmented and varies widely between countries. With the exception of Scandinavia and—to a lesser degree, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—little or no regulation exists to govern scientific misconduct. Regrettably, the European Commission (EC) has drawn up no regulations about potential problems arising from its multibillion framework of research programmes in Europe.

Europe has a long history of allegations of scientific misconduct, but recent cases have highlighted the limitations of current oversight systems.1 2 3 At first glance, it may seem that misconduct is more frequent in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe,4 5 but this may reflect the lack of reporting and monitoring in the south. In Spain, for example, most research institutions have no codes of scientific integrity or policies to handle misconduct.6 It has been suggested that most European countries hide individual cases of fraud as a result of the lack of specific rules,7 but we do not know whether research misconduct is more common in countries that do not have monitoring standards than in those that do.

What steps should be taken? At a national level, countries without formal systems for investigating allegations (mainly in Southern and Eastern Europe) can learn from models in other countries. As an initial step, a local ombudsperson could be appointed to act as an impartial third party. This person could be approached by people seeking advice about scientific misconduct and might even be empowered to conduct (if necessary) preliminary inquiries. If the ombudsperson thinks that further investigation is needed, the matter should be referred to the institution where the study was carried out. The findings of the national monitoring body should be published annually. Decisions about whether to disclose the names of scientists proved to have been dishonest should take into account the prevailing culture and sensibilities. However, there is clearly a need to retract research that is found to be fraudulent. Implementation could be enforced by research funding agencies (and private foundations) providing funding only to institutions that adhere to scientific integrity guidelines.8

In most European countries legislation does not cover cases of scientific misconduct. In the absence of appropriate legislation, internal regulations may offer solutions through conciliation or arbitration; for example, as happens in the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.9

Modern research often has many authors, and problems can arise when authors from different countries are treated inconsistently. This could be prevented by establishing Europe wide policies on scientific dishonesty, with uniform procedures for violations.10 11 However, on the basis of current political, legal, cultural, and ethical differences between European nations, it is not feasible to set up a legally binding, unified, pan-European oversight framework. In addition, unlike other matters, the Treaty of the European Union specifies that ethics are within the competence of the member states and, therefore, no such directive can be imposed or prevail over national legislation.

A more realistic and timely pan-European scenario would be where most countries (or most research institutions) have regulations in place, which are complemented by additional Europe wide efforts, mainly focused on agencies that fund research. Thus, pan-European research funding bodies, notably the EC and the European Research Council, could set up regulatory mechanisms and compel institutions to formulate rules about research integrity and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct.

Jurisdiction (such as funding by the EC) is an essential requirement that must be met to make the system work by recognising a research agency's right to enforce compliance. The EC and the European Science Foundation are well suited to appoint independent scientific experts to investigate misconduct in projects financed by the framework research programmes and the European Research Council, especially as the combined budget of the 2007-13 seventh framework research programme and the European Research Council is €48bn (£32.5bn; $65.5bn). In addition, once these steps are taken, a European network of committees handling misconduct and fraud in research, as proposed by the Finnish National Advisory Board on Research Ethics,12 could be of great use.

International cooperation might tackle the problem of scientists moving to countries where employers are unaware that they have committed misconduct. Moreover, albeit heterogeneous, European academic societies and associations could define principles of good scientific practice for their area of expertise and make them binding on their members.

Independently, the EC could ask its advisory European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies to draw up a set of recommendations within a pan-European framework. Although not legally binding, the standards described by this group could be adopted by those countries that lack regulatory mechanisms. Alternatively, they might consider implementing some of the national oversight scenarios proposed above.

Notes

Competing interests: XB is responsible for the elaboration of Research Integrity Guidelines for the IDIBAPS Research Institute and the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.

Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

References

1. Young C, Godlee F. Managing suspected research misconduct. BMJ 2007;334:378-9. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. University of Oslo and Rikshospitalet-Radiumhospitalet Medical Centre. English summary of the report of the commission of inquiry of Jon Sudbo's allegations of scientific misconduct 2006. www.rikshospitalet.no/content/res_bibl/6633.pdf
3. University of Oslo and Rikshospitalet-Radiumhospitalet Medical Centre. Complete report of the commission of inquiry of Jon Sudbo's allegations of scientific misconduct [in Norwegian]. 2006. www.rikshospitalet.no/content/res_bibl/6621.pdf
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12. National Advisory Board on Research Ethics. TENK. Annual report 2003 www.protsv.fi/tenk/ENG/Publicationsguidelines/annualreport_2003.pdf

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