NHMRC Public Consultations

Skip Navigation and go to Content
Visit NHMRC website

Review of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research Submission

Personal Details
First Name: 
Last Name: 
Specific comments
Specific comments: 
Principles in Code

Comments on the draft new Code and Guide to Investigating and Managing Potential Breaches of the Code.

Prof David Vaux

(These are my personal opinions, and do not necessarily reflect or correspond to those of various organisations of which I am a member.)

The current Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research dates from 2007, and replaced the Joint NHMRC/AVCC Statement and Guidelines on Research Practice (2004). One of the chief reasons for writing the current (2007) Code was case involving Bruce Hall. In response to the Hall affair, Dr Martin Van der Weyden wrote (MJA 2004 180:149-151) “If we can learn from this, it will have made a contribution to the pursuit of integrity in research.”

He went on to list five lessons to be learnt:

Lesson 1: Once allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud have been made, these should be addressed from the beginning by an external and independent inquiry.

Lesson 2: The external inquiry should have statutory power to investigate and inquire.

Lesson 3: Inquiries into allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud should consider having on the panel of inquiry at least one expert from the same scientific discipline as the scientists under investigation.

Lesson 4: To preserve public confidence, inquiries into scientific misconduct should aim for the highest degree of transparency and accessibility of final reports.

Lesson 5: Universities, research institutions, research societies, societies and funding bodies need to collectively define uniform processes and procedures for addressing and adjudicating on scientific research and fraud.

The current Code attempted to incorporate these lessons. A major weakness of the Code is that it is often worded imprecisely and ambiguously, such that institutions have been able to avoid adhering to the spirit of the Code. To give one example, in an attempt to address lesson 1, the Code states (pg 29 section 9.3) “ … this Code does require institutions to establish independent external research misconduct inquiries to evaluate allegations of serious research misconduct that are contested.” Yet in my experience of investigations by institutions in Victoria, NSW, and South Australia, independent external research misconduct inquiries have not been established; instead, inquiries are conducted internally by non-experts, and no detailed report is released. Another major weakness of the current Code is that there is no penalty for institutions that fail to adhere to their responsibilities as listed in the Code.

The draft of the revised Code and draft Guide to investigating and managing potential breaches do not appear to address the weaknesses in the current Code, they appear to be reversing course to un-learn the lessons the current Code attempted to put in place.

Instead of mandating independent external inquiries (for contested cases that if proven would lead to retraction of publications, return of funds, or dismissal) the draft code permits all inquiries to be conducted internally.

Instead of giving statutory powers to investigate, the draft code says legal counsel may be engaged to assist panels, and should not be allowed to assist any of the other parties.

Instead of mandating the number and expertise of panel members, the draft code leaves this entirely to the discretion of the Designated Officer, who would be an employee of the institution where the alleged misconduct was taking place.

Instead of mandating institutions to be transparent and provide accessible final reports, the draft code says that everything should be done confidentially (i.e. secretly), and that information should not be shared.

Instead of giving precise, unambiguous definitions, the draft code even leaves the term “misconduct” undefined, and allows institutions to determine for themselves whether to include a definition of research misconduct.

To its shame, Australia, unlike Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, the USA (and others), does not have a national office for research integrity. This makes it even more important that the Code and Guidelines for handling allegations of misconduct are strong, unambiguous, and enforceable. The lessons learnt from the cases of research misconduct in Australia that have reached the public domain need to be reinforced, not ignored. Australia should also learn from experiences in other countries.

The draft Code and Guidelines give ample consideration and latitude to institutions, but overlook the interests of the accused, complainants, and the general public whose taxes fund this research, and depend on it to bring them new treatments.

The new Code and Guidelines must:

-Provide clear definitions of terminology so that its statements are not ambiguous.

       It must define “research misconduct” and “breach” and whilst acknowledging that instances will fall across a wide spectrum, there must be guidance on the circumstances where cases can be handled internally and where they must be handled independently and externally.

       I suggest defining research misconduct as “a deliberate breach of the Code, or repeated breaches of the Code”.

-State that inclusion of falsified or fabricated data in grant applications is fraud, and will be referred to the police.

-State that institutions that do not adhere to their responsibilities listed in the Code will be in breach of the Funding Agreement and may have their funding suspended.

-Indicate that the Code and Guidelines are not just advisory. Adherence should be mandatory, enforced by the threat of removal of funding.

-Be unambiguous. The Code and Guidelines should eschew the word “should”, and, as appropriate, use the word “must” or phrases such as “are required to”. Other vague terms that should be replaced are “…would typically require…”, “…may be dismissed…”, “…it is important to…”.

The Code and Guidelines should acknowledge that errors in the literature arise inadvertently, and not just as a result of research misconduct.

To enhance the integrity of the research literature, it should encourage and reward researchers who willingly make corrections to publications, regardless of the cause.

One of the best innovations in the current Code was the establishment of research integrity advisers. Their role should be extended so that the aid of an adviser is offered to the person accused as well as the complainant. Training of research integrity advisors (and potential independent panel members) should be provided by the NHMRC and ARC, until Australia establishes a national office for research integrity.

Specific consultation questions
Question 1: Do you like the new approach to the Code, namely the principles-based document being supported by several guides that provide advice on implementation?: 
I like the idea of listing the principles, but they should just be the framework that underlies the precise, clear, unambiguous wording of the Code, which should be part of the same document. Adherence to the Code by both researchers and institutions should be mandatory, and enforced by the threat of removal of funding. Additional guidelines may be helpful in interpreting the Code, but they should not replace the Code.
Question 2:The draft Code is intended to be used by all research disciplines. Do the principles adequately capture the expectations for responsible research across all research disciplines?: 
I cannot speak for all research disciplines.
Question 3: The draft Guide refers to breaches of the Code rather than providing a definition of research misconduct, and states that institutions can decide whether or not to use the term research misconduct in their own processes.: 
Not having a definition of “research misconduct” will lead to endless confusion and dispute, especially when it is combined with weakened transparency, increased secrecy, and permission for institutions to handle allegations without any external independent oversight.
Question 4: Do you think the process described for investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code is clearly described and practical?: 
As written, the Guide would allow all inquiries to be carried out internally and with no transparency. The Code should require that concerns of misconduct that are contested, and would, if proven, result in retraction of a publication, return of funds, or termination of employment, are handled by an entirely independent external inquiry. The cooperation of the institution is required to provide research integrity advisors, to secure the evidence, to coordinate witnesses, and to inform funding bodies. The NHMRC or ARC could help institutions establish rigorous but fair external independent inquiries by maintaining a list of suitably qualified potential panel members.
Question 5: The Code Review Committee and working group are considering what additional resources should be developed to support implementation of the Code and Guide.: 
The best case studies are ones that have actually happened, e.g. the Briggs affair, the McBride affair, the Hall affair. Lessons should be learned from all of these cases. If the draft revised Code is implemented as it is currently written, this unfortunate history will be repeated.
Question 6: Are the mechanisms for review of an investigation clearly and correctly described in Section 7.6 of the Guide? If not, where are the inaccuracies?: 
The statement “Institutions should have processes for considering appeals about the way an investigation into a breach of the Code was conducted” is not a requirement, and it would be anticipated that the same conflicts of interest or miscarriages that are being appealed would simply be repeated. Major weaknesses of ARIC are that institutions can delay investigations, institutions can fail to report when investigations are completed, and ARIC cannot consider appeals based on merit, only process. ARIC cannot consider appeals if the research was not funded by the NHMRC or ARC, and can only make recommendations to the CEO’s of those funding bodies. It is, to mix metaphors, a hamstrung toothless tiger. Until a national office for research integrity is established, ARIC’s mandates and powers should be increased so that it can consider appeals based on merit and evidence, as well as on process, it should be able to consider appeals even if the researcher was not in receipt of NHMRC or ARC funding.
Question 7: Please comment on which three topics you would nominate as being the highest priority and why.: 
It will be essential that such guides are written by researchers who have deep and wide experience with the subject.

Page reviewed: 17 September, 2018