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

Personal Details
This submission reflects the views of
Organisation Name: 
Edith Cowan University
Specific comments
Specific comments: 
Preamble in Code

The document indicates that the Code is supported by a series of better practice guides and other supplementary material.  The FAQs document provides information about the better practice guides but no mention is made of the other supplementary material.

The draft Code sets out high-level principles, responsibilities and expectations that apply to all research.  In this way, the draft Code is similar to the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (the National Statement), which provides values and principles of ethical conduct.  The National Statement then makes reference to these values and principles when providing further advice in the sections included under ethical considerations specific to research methods or fields and ethical considerations specific to participants.  Similarly, the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes sets out overall governing principles and an ethical framework, which are then further developed in subsequent sections. When developing the better practice guides (and other supplementary material) that will support the Code, it may be useful to clarify whether NHMRC will use a similar approach.

Principles in Code

P1 Honesty

How will P1 encompass the ability for Human Research Ethics Committees to provide approval (according to the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research) for research projects that may involve limited disclosure and/or deception?


P5 Respect

It may be more appropriate to refer to the use of animals for scientific purposes, as this is the terminology used in the Australian code of the care and use of animals for scientific purposes.


Responsibilities (R1-R12) of institutions

Most of the existing responsibilities of institutions in the current version of the Code (listed under the section on general principles of responsible research) are included in the draft Code.  However, some responsibilities do not appear in the draft Code as institutional responsibilities:


  •         A clear policy on collaborative research projects
  •         Regular monitoring of the institution’s performance with regard to the guidelines
  •         Promotion of mentoring (this now appears as a researcher responsibility)
  •          Ensuring a safe research environment

These responsibilities should be included in the better practice guides.



The comparison document specifically comments on the important role of Research Integrity Advisors in promoting the Code.  Perhaps this should be reinforced in this section.


Responsibilities (R13-R28) of researchers

Most of the existing responsibilities of researchers in the current version of the Code (listed under the section on general principles of responsible research) are included in the draft Code.  The draft Code also includes some of the researcher responsibilities mentioned under the specific topics.  However, the responsibility to respect the environment does not appear as a specific researcher responsibility in the draft Code.



In addition to the 3Rs, supporting the wellbeing of animals and minimizing impact, the governing principles in the Australian code of the care and use of animals for scientific purposes also indicate that the proposed use of animals must be justified.



Definitions in Code

The draft Guide refers variously to: 

  • Concerns or complaints about the conduct of research

  • Concerns or complaints about potential breaches of the Code

  • Concerns about research conduct

  • Poor research conduct

 Consistency of reference may avoid misinterpretation.

Guide Section 1

Executive Summary

 The document indicates the following: 

The seriousness of a breach of the Code is to be determined on a case-by-case basis and requires good judgement, careful deliberation, an appreciation of the context and accepted disciplinary norms.

Figure 1 provides some examples of breaches at opposite ends of a spectrum (minor to major).  However, no further advice is provided in the Code with respect to how this determination of seriousness should take place, who has this responsibility, and how the seriousness may affect consequent actions.  The draft Code subsequently (section 3.2, Box 1 and section 7.7) refers “the extent to which a breach represents a departure from accepted practice”, “the degree to which a breach represents a departure from the Code” and “the extent of a breach”.  If this is intended as advice for the determination of the seriousness of a breach, it may be useful to make this consistent.

The document indicates that breaches are departures from the principles and responsibilities of the Code and responsible research practice.  Part A of the current Code provides information on specific topics.  Although many requirements in Part A of the current Code are expected to be developed into guides that will provide up-to-date information for institutions, it is unclear whether breaches will also include departures from the guides or only from the draft Code document itself.  Once a guide providing information on a specific topic is developed, clarification should be provided on whether the guide will form part of the Code (and how the advice provided in the guide relates to breaches).

The executive summary (and other parts of the document) refers to ‘all stages during the investigation and management of a potential breach of the Code’.  Presumably, this is intended to refer to the overall process, i.e. from when a concern/complaint is received to when the outcome from the investigation is reached.  However, another interpretation could be that ‘investigation’ only refers to the process that occurs following the preliminary assessment and outcome.  It may be prudent to provide clarification here.

Guide Section 2

2.1 Institutional responsibilities

Requirements of institutions include protection of complainants.  However, there may also need to be protection of respondents, particularly if a concern or complaint is found to be vexatious or has no basis in fact.  Guidance is provided in Section 6.4 but it may be useful to mention in this section.

Guide Section 3

3.1 Definition

The draft Code includes the following example of a breach under ‘fabrication, falsification, plagiarism’:

Concealment or facilitation of breaches of the Code by others

This may be better placed under the first heading.

Record keeping should be broadened to refer to research data management, which could include examples related to inappropriate access to data.

3.2 Extent: breaches occur on a spectrum

The document indicates that some minor breaches can be addressed at the preliminary assessment stage.  However, this is not included in Figure 2.  Clarification should be provided, particularly as the role of the AO (Table 2) does not include responsibility for this determination.

Presumably, this step could occur:


  1. prior to the preliminary assessment, i.e. once the DO had received the concern or complaint and determined that it does represent a potential breach of the Code, and therefore the matter does not need to proceed to a preliminary investigation (see section 5.3); or


  1. after the preliminary assessment, i.e. once the DO has reviewed the preliminary assessment report and made a determination (see section 6.3).


Guide Section 4

4.2 Principles of procedural fairness

Inclusion of alleged (or potential) at first sentence.

The principles of procedural fairness, also referred to as natural justice, apply to all stages of investigating and managing alleged breaches of the Code.

This section also refers to ‘investigations into allegations’.  As an allegation is only made following the outcome of the preliminary assessment, it is unclear if the advice is only for this aspect of the process.   If the advice with respect to procedural fairness also applies to the preliminary assessment phase, this should be clarified.


(v) Transparent

Include additional wording – Information on institutional processes….


Figure 2

It would be useful to include in the overview the point at which an allegation is made.


In addition, section 6.3 also outlines other instances where an investigation may be required, i.e. a) where a respondent admits the breach but there is a need to identify appropriate corrective actions or other necessary steps and b) where a respondent contests a finding that there is evidence to support a breach of the Code.


4.3.1 Research integrity advisors (RIAs)

The comparison document specifically comments on the important role of Research Integrity Advisors in promoting the Code.  Perhaps this should be reinforced in this section.


As both the complainant and the respondent may seek the advice of (separate) RIAs, confidentiality amongst RIAs may need to be maintained.  There is reference in section 5.3 for the need for confidentiality.


Guide Section 5

5.3 Managing complaints about potential breaches of the Code

This section includes the following advice:

To avoid compromising the assessment, anyone involved in managing a complaint should not share information unless required.

The need for confidentiality may need to also be included in other sections of the Code, e.g. seeking of expertise from other sources (section 6.2).


5.4 Communicating with the complainant

Reference is made to communicating with the complainant.  The draft Code should also refer to communicating with the respondent (where this is relevant).

Guide Section 6

6.3 Outcomes from the preliminary review

The report from the preliminary review is to include recommendations for further action.  As the report is reviewed by the DO, who determines how the actions arising, it may be useful to clarify what recommendations may be made.


6.5 Summary

Table 2 outlines the roles and functions of officers involved in the preliminary assessment.  It may be useful to also include the responsibility for communication with the complainant and respondent.


Table 2 AO/RIO field 3rd dot-point should be balanced to the circumstances – Liaises with the respondent and other relevant parties as may be appropriate.


Guide Section 7

7. Investigation Stage

7.2 Preparing for the Investigation


3rd dot-point – there may not be a Chair if the Panel is a person (see definitions 9 for Panel person or persons).  Nomination of the Panel and Chair as may be appropriate.


Appendix 2 mentions that the respondent should be provided with an opportunity to comment on the composition of the Panel.  If the respondent objects to Panel member(s), clarification should be provided on the responsibility of the institution and whether the complainant will also be afforded this opportunity.


7.3 Conduct of the Investigation

4th para – Legal Counsel.  This should read Legal counsel may be engaged to provide advice to the Panel on matters of process only….  They cannot assist.


5th para – Support Person. The limitation of the support person only to provide personal support could be contrary to Fair Work Act and may have implications if the matter proceeds externally.  The Act allows a support person to assist at any discussions relating to dismissal.  


Would propose additional wording – “The support person can assist and support the respondent and/or complainant in meetings or discussions, but cannot represent or speak on the other person’s behalf.  The support person should not be a practising solicitor or barrister”.


The last dot-point at 7.3 states the Panel to make recommendations as appropriate regarding further actions.


A Panel should not be making recommendations only reporting findings of facts, as the matter is determined by the authorised decision maker (supported at section 7.4.3).  Noting the intention is principles-based it should read “will provide a report into its finds of fact consistent with the terms of reference”.  If the Panel is to make recommendations this should be captured within the terms of reference. 


This change would align to the last dot-point at 7.2 and 7.7 Summary for Panel.


7.4 Outcomes from Investigation

Remove or reframe section.


The Panel’s report containing findings of fact should not be prepared as a draft and provided to any parties for comment prior to finalising.  The process proposed after the investigation process has concluded will cause delays and lead to arguments about content and evidence used or relied upon by the Panel.  Factual inaccuracies should be clarified during the investigation.


7.4.2 Insufficient evidence for Panel to make recommendation

Remove.  The Panel’s findings should report if there is inclusive evidence then it is for the authorised decision maker to determine the appropriate course of action based on the findings.   A further investigation can suggest a witch-hunt.


7.6 Mechanisms for review of an investigation

This section should refer to potential breaches of the Code (rather than actual breaches).  The appeal will be about the way an investigation was conducted and section 7.1 indicates that the purpose of the investigation is “to determine whether a breach of the Code occurred, the extent of the breach and the recommended actions”.

Guide Section 8

8 Investigating and managing potential breaches that involve collaborative research across multiple institutions

Clarification would be useful to indicate whether the advice here applies to the preliminary assessment or only the investigation phase.

Guide Section 9

9 Definitions of terms used in this Guide

Definition of Complainant should read “A person or persons who has made a complaint or raised a concern about the conduct of research”.

Guide Appendix 2

Box 6 should be deleted.

The Respondent should not be provided with an opportunity to comment on the composition of the Panel (Note 9 definitions Panel can be person/persons).  If grounds exist for objection to composition of the Panel then should be for any party to the proceedings.  Also the current wording could cause unnecessary delays, especially if a Respondent unreasonably objects to all proposed compositions put forward.


Box 8 – Remove.  No need to provide Panel with opportunity to comment on the terms of reference or scope of investigation.  The scope and terms are established by the delegated authority within the Institution, and if changes are needed the Panel can raise such issues during its investigation.


Box 10 – first dot-point not needed as the investigation is based on the formal allegation put forward by the Institution which the Respondent is responding to.

Guide Appendix 3

Box 11 – Remove, unless this is consistent with the terms of reference.


Box 12 – Remove, unless consistent with the terms of reference, as DO and/or REO would have the authority to make recommendation and determination on this matter.


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?: 
ECU supports the new approach to the Code as a principles-based document supported by guides which more clearly and simply articulate the responsibilities and expectations that apply to all research. More detailed feedback is provided in specific comments.
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?: 
ECU is of the view that the principles are sufficiently generic and adequately capture the expectations for responsible research across all research disciplines. However, it is anticipated that there may be some discipline-specific considerations for future guides yet to be developed. ECU would support, therefore, that the structure of the guides would follow a similar approach i.e. that where there are discipline-specific considerations that these be outlined following any overarching elements.
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.: 
ECU supports the approach which enables institutions to make their own determinations as to whether to include a definition of research misconduct in its own policies and processes. The guide provides helpful examples of the spectrum of possible breaches and their level of seriousness, the appropriate level of disciplinary actions and sufficient flexibility for institutions to assess the degree of departure from the Code vis-à-vis the relevant contextual mitigating or extenuating circumstances.
Question 4: Do you think the process described for investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code is clearly described and practical?: 
The process described, which includes reference to an investigation panel, would align to disciplinary investigation processes within the institution’s enterprise agreement. In support of improved alignment, more detailed feedback is also provided in specific comments.
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.: 
There could be potential value in providing case studies, although ECU is concerned that if these are not appropriately and carefully crafted they could cause more confusion than clarity. Whilst value may be found to assist with education, these may be more suitable within separate training resources rather than being directly embedded with this and future guides. We would also suggest that development of a suite of training resources and regular training conducted by NHMRC would be of great assistance.
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?: 
ECU does not support the need for an internal appeals process and, therefore, requests that the first paragraph under Section 7.6 be removed. External avenues of appeal exist and are adequate e.g. a dispute via the Industrial Instrument can proceed to the Fair Work Commission, and deal with claims of unfair dismissal from any disciplinary process. Additionally, as outlined in the draft guide, the ARIC can manage complaints regarding compliance with institutional processes. Further, the third paragraph under this section would benefit from some reframing given the ability to appeal a decision of an employer externally would be driven by the particular jurisdictional argument being put forward by the applicant.
Question 7: Please comment on which three topics you would nominate as being the highest priority and why.: 
ECU would like to nominate the following topics for the next guides, following authorship and data management, for the reasons outlined below: 1. Conflicts of interest – given COIs can arise in a large range of circumstances, it could therefore be an important contextual guide. Further there has already been a degree of sector discussion and consultation previously regarding additional/supplementary guidance in this regards. 2. Supervision – a primary activity within higher education institutions with specific risks that can arise given the position of power held by academics, not to mention the mentoring role for the next generation of researchers who need to also be cognisant of the Code as early as possible. 3. Collaborative research – all of the guides will need application and consideration within the context of collaboration given the complexities of research governance, higher risk exposures, international and industry collaboration. In developing the further guides, consideration should be given to cross-referencing within and between guides and, where appropriate, referring to relevant sections of the Code itself.
General comments

The draft Code no longer provides information on specific topics and the FAQs provide the reasoning for this.  However, the information on specific topics has been important and useful for both institutions and researchers.  It may be useful for NHMRC to provide advice for the interim period when the current Code is rescinded but before the new guides are developed.


Page reviewed: 17 September, 2018