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
This submission reflects the views of
Organisation Name: 
Queensland University of Technology (QUT)
Specific comments
Specific comments: 
Principles in Code

P2 - Rigour in conducting high-quality research

  • The term 'high quality' is a subjective term.  The inclusion of more descriptors in the principle should be included:  appropriate design, clearly articulated recruitment processes, reporting of negative results, unnecessary duplication of study; appointment of research team members with relevant skills and expertise, processes to mentor emerging early researchers and post graduate students (this term could also sit under P7).  It is is suggested that the term high-quality be removed and teh concept of rigour in reseach is used instead. 

P3 - Transparency in declaring interests and reporting research methodologies and findings

  • It is recommended stronger wording be used to indicate open access/openness for research outputs.  "Research methodology, research findings and knowledge will be shared, communicated openly and whenever possible made freely available online"
P4 - Fairness in the treatment of others 
  • Include 'Fellow researchers and others involved in research will be treated fairly and with respect".  In addition to researchers, there are many others involved in undertaking research, regulators, support staff and research participants. 

P5 - Respect for research participants, the wider community, animals and the environment

  • Include reference to the NHMRC National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and NHMRC Code for the Care and Use of Animals for scientific purposes.  It is acknowledged that P7, point 4 requires compliance with relevant guidelines by the National Statement and scientific use code are seminal documents.
  • The addition of legislative and instructional policy should be included 
  • Preferred prior versions that include respect for legislations and policies.  The spirit is different to accountability.

P6 - Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples or communities significantly involved in or affected by research

  • Similar to comments for P5 above.  Reference to the Values and Ethics:Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research and Keeping on Track: A guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about health research ethics (both under review)

P7 - Accountability for the conduct of research

  • Include a point that "Researchers will report any potential practuices that are not aligned to the principles of this Code.'
P8 - Promotion of responsible conduct in the research community
    Suggest this be broken into two dot points:
  • Researchers and institutions will promote responsible research conduct principles
  • Researchers and institutions will mentor and supervise research trainees and early career researchers in responsible research practices 


Responsibilities for Institutions in Code

R5 - Establish good governance and management practices for responsible research conduct 

  • No mention of providing rigorous policy and guidance on managment of research IP and any resulting collaborations.  This could be enhanced with reference to 'adherence to institutional policy'.

R6 - Develop and maintain the currency and ready availability of a suite of policies and procedures which ensure that institutional practices are consistent with the principles and responsibilities of the Code 

  • Could this include example i.e. mangement of IP, governance, data management, authorship, conflict of interest etc. and ensuring there is a corresponding "P" item

R8 - Identify and comply with relevant legislation, regulations and policies related to the conduct of research 

  • The wording of this responsibility overlooks institutional obligations pursuant to the common-law.  We recommend the wording should be changed to state "identify and comply with relevant law, regulations and policies related to the conduct of research"

Responsibilities for Researchers in Code

R14 - Ensure that the ethics (remove the word ethics and replace with moral) moral principles of research merit and integrity, justice, beneficence and respect are applied to human research 

R15 - Ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or communities are consulted about research significantly affecting them; and 

R22 - Acknowledge those who have contributed to the research 

  • The responsibilities of giving back to the community, especially communities that have been engaged in the research is not evident.  Outcome of our research should be taken back to participants, especially when working with particular participants' groups like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

R17 - Disclose and manage actual, potential or perceived conflicts of interest

    • Although the responsibilities of researchers to disclose and manage conflicts of interest is noted (R17), in the research context institutions may also have actual or perceived conflicts of interest that may impact upon research governance processes particularly when an institution enters into partnerships with commercial entities such as the pharmaceutical industry who may sponsor activity, building scholarship etc.   Example:  In Canada it was alleged that the University of Toronto's perceived or actual conflicts of interest that arose from financial contributions by pharmaceutical companies to that University negatively affected the types of research governance obligations outlined in this document (see for example, Schafer 2003).  In the United States similar allegations have been made about the University of Minnesota (Elliott 2015; McCarthy 2015).  The responsibilities of institutions in Australia to disclose and manage these conflicts so as not to compromise the robustness of research governance processes are not explicitly set out in the Code. 

 R19 - Disseminate research findings responsibly, accurately and (delete broadly and insert "to the widest possible audience") to the widest possible audience 

R21 - Cite and acknowledge (delete other and replace with "all") all works appropriately and accurately and obtain permission for the use of unpublished work (insert "as required by Copyright Law")

R23 - Ensure that authors or research outputs are those, and only those, who have made a significant intellectual or scholarly contribution to the research and its output, and that they agree to be listed as an author 
    • This is too vague and open to interpretation.  If there is no guidance, authorship and acknowledgement will be confused.  Notably, the draft Code does not require that an author must have contributed to the writing or revision of the paper itself.  If so, this is a departure from current practice, and a move away from "authorship" to "contributorship".  This may well be a good move, but it is important that this change is agreed and made explicit at a high level - between institutions - and ideally by the Code itself. 

 R25 - Undertake and promote education and training in responsible research conduct 

  • This places a responsibility on researchers to promote training in the responsible conduct of research.  That should instead be a shared responsibility with the institution, supervisors and researchers. 

R26 - Participate in peer review in a way that is fair, rigorous and timely and maintains the confidentiality of the content 

  • This imples that researchers must participate in peer review.  While peer review is an activity that prompts responsible research practice, this principle appears less weighted then other responsibilities.  If we are to strengthen the transparency and accountability elements of RRP, peer review should have equal weight.

R27 - Comply with the relevant, laws, regulations, disciplinary standards and institutional policies related to responsible research conduct.  Institutions ensure the appropriate approvals are in place prior to the commencement of research, and that the conditions of any approals are adhered to during the course of research

  • add "institutions" to the second sentence. 
Definitions in Code
  • The balance of probabilities definition is confusing. To be clearer - the standard of proof such that, on the weight of evidence, it must be more probable than not that a breach has occurred.  In any case, this definition is probably not necessary here.  It could instead go in the guide to managing potential breaches. 
  • The definition of Conflicts of Interest says (rightly) that institutions may have them.  But then the Code places no responsibility on institutions to disclose and manage COIs.  This responsibility is only prescribed for researchers.
  • The definition for research data may need revision.  Suggest consulting ANDS.
Guide Section 3

3 - Breaches of the Code

  • A further example of a breach of the code could and should include the practice of ghost-writing where scientists guest author papers written by pharmaceutical companies, thesaurus hacking and ‘place holding’ as forms of plagiarism.  These practices are contrary to the values set out in the Code and has become a significant ethical problem. 

3.2 - Extent: breaches occur on a spectrum

  • (para 3): the second sentence should be removed “This decision will need to be guided by requirements in employment agreements and should be taken in consultation with legal and human resources advice.”  
  • Reason: The reference to “processes” in the first sentence is wide enough to cover processes that may be specified in enterprise agreements and/or policy documents. 
  • (Figure 1): Composition of investigation panel box: The references to “no legal assistance” and “counsel assisting” need to both be removed.  
  • Reason: The panels and parties represented will not be assisted or represented by lawyers in the proceedings.
  • (Figure 1): Dotted line between last two boxes, and the subsequent explanation for the dotted line, should be removed.  
  • Reason:  Institutional processes govern matter above and below the dotted line; whether covered by enterprise agreements and/or policy documents. 
Guide Section 4

4.2 - Principles of procedural fairness 

  • The principles of procedural fairness also include that the decision-maker considers relevant information and does not consider irrelevant information.
  • Investigators and decision-makers are to be impartial and any conflicts of interest that do, may, or may be perceived to jeopardise their impartiality should be disclosed and managed.”
  • Example: One of the critiques of the research governance processes associated with the events at the University of Minnesota was that conflicts of interests were not broadly disclosed so that interested parties were not made aware of possible conflicts and hence could not be evaluated as having a potential impact on that conflict and/or governance process (Jacmon 2016).  It would be useful to address the point about the extent of the disclosure requirements in more detail.
  • It would be useful to clarify whether the responsible executive officer and the designated officer can be the same person or whether their role should be distinct.
  • (v): “Transparent – Institutional processes should be readily available and/or provided to respondents, complainants, all employees and students engaged in research.”  Should commence with “Information on institutional processes….”

4.3.1 - Research Integrity Advisors (4th paragraph)

  • An RIA is not to advise on matters where there is a conflict of interest
  • Does that refer to the RIA having a conflict of interest?  Or does it refer to any incidence where a COI arises?
4.4 - Corrupt conduct and/or criminal behaviour (1st sentence)
  • Some matters may involve corrupt and/or criminal behaviour.” 
  • This implies that an institutional research governance body can make a finding that something is criminal or corrupt behaviour.  This can only be determined by a court.  Accordingly, the sentence should be worded as “Some matters may involve allegations of corrupt conduct and/or criminal behaviour.”

Guide Section 5

5.3 - Managing complaints about potential breaches of the Code (paragraph 5)

  • Institutions should be aware of circumstances where a power imbalance exists, such as complaints brought by students and/or staff in a more junior position.”
  • This wording implies that institutions must be aware, not that they have any responsibilities to act in any particular way.  Also institutions should be aware of the power imbalance when complaints are brought against students or junior staff and appropriate additional supports should be provided in these circumstances recognising the inexperience and vulnerable positions of these persons.

5.4 - Communicating with the complainant 

  • Section 5.4: typo in the second sentence.  Should say “It is expected that a complainant will be informed …


Guide Section 6

6.2 - Conduct of the preliminary assessment 

  • The principles of natural justice may suggest that the person(s) against whom allegations are made should be informed of those allegations and of the preliminary assessment process so that they have an opportunity to be heard, irrespective of whether it is considered necessary to interview that person or not.
  • A suitable AO should not only be qualified, but should be free of conflicts of interest or conflicts of interest should be disclosed and able to be managed.
  • It should be clearly noted that the principles of procedural fairness must always be applied when undertaking the preliminary assessment, as much as they are when undertaking the investigation.  Preliminary assessments should be robust and free from bias.

6.5 - Summary

  • Section 6.5 (Table 2): 3rd dot point should say “ - Liaises with the respondent and other relevant parties as may be appropriate
Guide Section 7

7.2 - Preparing for the investigation 

  • The panel should also have access to legal advice, including the possibility of accessing independent legal advice external to the institution if there is a question of a significant institutional conflict of interest
  • The panel should also be required to follow the Code, the Guide and to ensure that the investigation complies with any legal, regulatory or other externally imposed constraints
  • This section assumes that a panel should be primarily internal, with the potential for external members.  It is possible that there may be instances where an institution’s conflicts of interest in respect of the matter at hand are readily apparent and/or where there is significant potential for institutional systems failures and where a purely external panel may be more appropriate to ensure a robust, independent investigation.  The Guide should acknowledge these circumstances

7.3 - Conduct of the investigation 

  • Members should not only disclose conflicts but develop a mutually agreed plan to manage those conflicts.  There may be incidences where it is not possible for conflicts to be managed and where the conflict gives rise to an apprehension of bias that cannot be managed.  In that circumstance the person should not be part of any investigation, or preliminary assessment. 
  • While it is understandable that the guidance document should seek to keep investigation processes at the lowest level of legal formality as possible, including by specifying that the support person should not be a practising solicitor or barrister, some of these investigations have potentially serious employment consequences for researchers.  It would be understandable in these circumstances that researchers should want to seek legal advice and have a lawyer present, even if that person cannot advocate for their client, at any interview.  It also may be that the researcher should prefer to have a spouse or partner as a support person and it is arguable that person should not be disqualified just because they are a practising solicitor or barrister. 
  • (para 4):  The first sentence should say “Legal counsel may be engaged to provide advice to the Panel on matters of process only…

7.4 - Outcomes from the investigation 

  • It should be specified as a matter of fairness and in accordance with the principles of natural justice that the researcher has a reasonable time to respond to the draft report.
  • **Section 7.4: The written report from the Panel, which contains findings of fact, should NOT be prepared as a draft for comment by any parties to the proceedings.  This approach will inevitably lead to further complexities, argument, and time delays.

7.4.1 - No evidence to support a breach of the Code 

  • Action against the complainant should especially be taken if the complaint appears to have been made in bad faith.  Any action against a complainant should be proportionate as to whether it is considered frivolous, vexatious or in bad faith, i.e. educative for frivolous complaints.  Any action should be taken in accordance with institutional policy, within the legal framework governing these issues, and in accordance with the principles of natural justice. 

7.4.2 - Insuffifcient evidence for Panel to make recommendation 

  • **Section 7.4.2:  This section should be removed.  Reasons:  Legal complications will arise if a substitute Panel is put in place, including possible suggestions of “gaming” by the institution. 
7.6 - Mechanisms for review of an investigation 
  • **Section 7.6 (para 1):  the suggestion that institutions should have an internal appeal process from the decision arising from the panel’s report is entirely misguided.  Reasons: (i) no university currently has an internal appeal process relating to decisions arising from 3 – member misconduct investigation panels commonly found in university enterprise agreements; (ii) the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court have jurisdiction over process matters covered by enterprise agreements, and over the provision of natural justice more generally under administrative law;  and (iii) the Australian Research Integrity Committee (ARIC) can deal with complaints regarding compliance with institutional processes; and (iv) the Fair Work Commission can deal with disputes over the application of procedures contained in enterprise agreements, and has jurisdiction to entertain claims of unfair dismissal that might arise from a disciplinary process
  • (para 3):  This paragraph is unnecessary. It is also conceptually inaccurate in that courts do not entertain “appeals” from decisions made by employers. 
** Denotes matter of substantive significance 
Guide Section 9

Definitions of terms used in this Guide 

  • Definition of complainant:  should say “A person or persons who has made a complaint or raised a concern about the conduct of research"
  • Definition of Respondent: should sayPerson or persons asked to respond to a concern or complaint or allegation about a potential breach of the Code


Guide Appendix 2

Appendix 2 - checklist for the investigation procedure 

  • (Item 6): Delete this item.  The Respondent should not be provided with a formal opportunity to comment on the composition of the Panel. 
  • Reason:  If there are grounds for objection as to composition of the Panel, an objection can be made by any party to the proceedings at an appropriate time. 
  • (Item 8):  Delete this item.  There is no need to give the Panel a formal opportunity to comment on the terms of reference and the scope of the investigation.  
  • Reason:  It should not be suggested that it be usual for changes to be made to the terms of reference or scope.  The Panel can always raise such issues if it needs to, and words to this effect can be included elsewhere in the Guide
  • (item 10): the first dot point should be deleted.  
  • Reason:  It will not necessarily be appropriate for an initial complaint document to be provided to the Panel.  
  • Reason:  It is the formal allegation formulated by the institution which the Respondent is responding to and which the Panel is considering, NOT an initial complaint submitted by the Complainant to the Institution.
  • (Item 12): the 4th dot point should be removed.  
  • Reason: there should not be a draft report (see point 8 above).
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?: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
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?: 
Responded to in general comments and principles of the code feedback section of this submission
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.: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
Question 4: Do you think the process described for investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code is clearly described and practical?: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
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.: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
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?: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
Question 7: Please comment on which three topics you would nominate as being the highest priority and why.: 
Responded to in general comments feedback section of this submission
General comments

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the revised draft Australian Code for the responsible conduct of research and draft Guide to Investigating and managing potential breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. This submission represents the collective views of QUT academic and professional staff, which from time to time may contrast.  


 General feedback on the revised Code:

 Format and Layout:

  • The layout and language of the draft Code is succinct and clear and the six page, high level format which separates Part A and Part B of the Code is welcomed.

 The need for practical guidance for Researchers and Institutions:

  • It is noted that by revising the Code to a more succinct document, there is potential to compromise the interpretation and level of detail that can accompany the respective principles and responsibilities for Institutions and researchers. The NHMRC has stated that the Code will be supported by a series of ‘Better Practice Guides’ (BPGs) and other ‘supplementary material’. QUT would welcome this as a supportive initiative.
  • QUT strongly suggests that these proposed BPGs could elaborate and help articulate the standards and expectations for research practice that is expected of researchers and institutions in a research environment that is growing increasingly complex and sophisticated as demonstrated by:
    • the nuances in research practices unique to research disciplines, such as, order of authorship
    • responsibilities for researchers in transdisciplinary research settings, for example, authorship, data management and dissemination.
    • expectations of funding bodies and publishers with respect to research data availability and the conduct of peer review
    • the changing nature of how research is disseminated and communicated via online mediums
    • the growth in collaborative research, locally and internationally, and aligning research practices in the global environment
    • articulating the role of industry in university collaborations and the potential for conflicts of interest and other unique ethical dilemmas to influence these relationships and how they can be managed
    • the important role of supervisors in training and mentoring new researchers to navigate the research environment.
  • These points highlight some of the research practices that would be enhanced by guidance that address key research practices, such as, authorship, publication, conflicts of interest, research data management and collaboration. These are similar to the current chapters in Part A of the Code. However, future guidance/BPGs could also address research dissemination, transdisciplinary research, research globalisation and international partnership responsibilities.
  • Development of practical guidance would recognise new initiatives and innovative research practices and emerging challenges which would allow the revised Code to maintain its relevancy and contemporaneous application over time.

The need for consistency in research guidance for Researchers and institutions:

  • A standardised guidance for Universities and research institutes is desirable to maintain consistency. Standardisation for research practices across institutions is also important for:
    • Minimising interpretation
    • Harmonising research practice expectations for collaborative research engagements
    • Informing a consistent approach to determining when a breach has occurred and judging the severity of research breaches. This is very important for the application of the revised draft ‘Guide to investigating and managing potential breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research.’

Cross referencing with other NHMRC Guidance’s and Statements

  • In QUT’s submission for the recent consultation on the revised chapter 3 of the NHMRC National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, it was mentioned how the inclusion of elements on ‘Research Data Management’ and ‘Dissemination of Research’ potentially duplicate the guidelines of the current Code.
  • There is inconsistency between the NHMRC Policy on Misconduct Related to NHMRC Funding 2016 and the more nuanced use of breach.
  • Research Data Management and Dissemination of Research are significant in not only human research ethics but in all research fields. In the finalised version of this revised Code and any supplementary guidance material, consideration needs to be given to how these documents interrelate. We consider that research practices that relate broadly to research should be included within the scope of the Code.

Three topics you would nominate as being the highest priority and why:

  • We agree that authorship and data management are high priority.  The next three topics we nominate are:
    • Copyright
    • Supervision
    • Intellectual property

Page reviewed: 17 September, 2018