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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: 
The University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney)
Specific comments
Specific comments: 
Principles in Code

Principles and code of conduct of responsible research 

(Principles of responsible research – page 2; and Responsibilities of researchers – page 4)

Currently, each principle for responsible research conduct is followed by dot points which describe a mix of expected researcher responsibilities and conduct (page 2 of the Code).

UNSW recommends that the Code:

  • explicitly links the respective responsibilities to the corresponding principle/s, to make the process of identifying a potential breach of the Code easier and more transparent for researchers and institutions; and
  • clearly states that the principles and Code of responsible research conduct applies across all stages and aspects of research – from conception and design to the conduct and reporting of research.
Responsibilities for Institutions in Code

Support for parties

(R12 Responsibilities of institutions – page 3)

R12 of the Code suggests that the scope and level of support to be provided by institutions to all parties involved in an investigation of a potential breach of the Code is unlimited.  This statement is confusing and not reasonable.

UNSW is of the view that it is fair and reasonable to provide support to complainants, including those external to the institution, and suggests that R12 be amended to read:

‘Provide reasonable support to all parties involved in an investigation of a potential breach of the Code and ensure that any consequent actions undertaken by the institution are proportionate to the breach’.

Guidance on what is fair and reasonable support to be offered to complainants will be helpful.

Principles in Code

Compliance with relevant laws, regulations and policies 

(P7-Accountability – Principles of responsible research conduct –  page 2; R8 – Responsibilities of institutions – page 3; and R27 – Responsibilities of researchers –  page 4)

UNSW notes that key laws, regulations and policies will not be listed in the new Code.  UNSW supports this change.

UNSW also notes that there remains inconsistent references in the following sections of the Code and recommends a consistent reference across all sections to avoid confusion:

  • P7- Accountability – ‘Research will comply with all relevant legislation and governmental and institutional policies and guidelines’
  • R8 – Responsibilities of institutions – ‘Identify and comply with relevant legislation, regulations and policies related to the conduct of research’
  • R27 – Responsibilities of researchers – ‘Comply with the relevant, laws, regulations, disciplinary standards and institutional policies related to responsible research conduct…’.

Definitions in Code

Definition of ‘research’

(Definitions for terms used in the Code – page 5)

UNSW notes that the new definition of ‘research’ adopted by the Code is consistent with the definition used by the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA).  We agree with and support the new definition and will ensure the same definition is adopted by the UNSW Research Code of Conduct.

Responsibilities for Institutions in Code

Regular monitoring

(R1 – Responsibilities of institutions – page 3)

UNSW notes that the specific requirement for regular institutional monitoring is no longer an explicit statement in the Code.  Instead, it is now covered by R1, which places responsibility upon institutions to ‘promote a culture and environment that supports researchers in the responsible and ethical conduct of research’.  This change is welcomed by UNSW.

Institutions like UNSW have rigorous internal audit systems and processes to ensure that its policies and procedures are well understood and adhered to.

Principles in Code

Respect and recognition of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities

(P5 – Respect and P6 - Accountability – page 2; and R15 – responsibilities of researchers – page 4)

UNSW welcomes specific reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and supports this change.  It is suggested however, that the language of this responsibility be amended to be consistent with the National requirements of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AITSIS) when consulting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.

Responsibilities for Institutions in Code

New reference to Research Integrity Advisors

(R10 Responsibilities of institutions – page 4)

UNSW supports this change.  The change recognises that Research Integrity Advisors (RIA) are a unique requirement of the Australian system and would even welcome extending the statement to recognise the RIA as champion and promoter of responsible conduct of research.

Guide Section 3

Breaches of the Code

(Part 3 Breaches of the Code – page 3)

UNSW welcomes the changes for identifying and managing potential breaches of the Code, especially:

  • not using the term ‘research misconduct’ and leaving institutions to choose if, and how, they use the term; 
  • broader and clearer definition of a breach of the Code;
  • streamlined process for identifying and managing potential breaches of the Code;
  • recognition by the authors of institutions’ own research codes of conduct, and the systems and process for identifying and managing potential breaches of the Code, including appropriate action;  
  • guidance provided to institutions to consistently identify and manage breaches of the Code.

Guide Section 7

Support person

(7.3 Investigations – page 16)

UNSW notes and supports the position that legal representatives should not be allowed to attend and represent any of the parties involved in a Panel investigation, except to assist the Panel on matters of process.

However, the new Code extends this position further with advice that ‘the support person should not be a practicing solicitor or barrister’.

It should be noted that support people for respondents who themselves come from the legal fraternity (i.e. Law researchers), are likely to be practicing solicitors and/or barristers.  It would be unreasonable to exclude them from participating as a support person by virtue of their admission to a profession.

UNSW recommends removing the sentence ‘the support person should not be a practicing solicitor or barrister’ and adding the word ‘advocate’ to the following paragraph on page 16 of the Guide: 

‘The support person is solely present to provide personal support to the respondent and/or complainant and not to advocate, represent, or speak on the other person’s behalf. The support person should not be a practising solicitor or barrister.’

Guide Section 4

Institutional roles

(4.3 Institutional roles – page 8)

UNSW notes that the Code introduces new terminology for institutional roles and clearly defines their respective functions.  The University welcomes these terms and will apply them.

UNSW notes the use of ‘BPG’ in the Table 1 heading and has assumed it represents ‘best practice guide’ (currently an undefined acronym in the Guide).  Where possible acronyms should be avoided.

Guide Section 5

Use of the terms ‘complaint’ and ‘allegation’.

(5 Consideration and management of complaints – pages 10-11; 6 Preliminary assessment stage  - pages 12-14; 7 Investigation – pages 15-16)

UNSW understands that the terms ‘complaints’ and ‘allegations’ are distinguished in the Code.  Our interpretation of this change is that a complaint/concern is received by an institution but it only becomes an ‘allegation’ after the preliminary assessment stage.

We welcome this change and will implement it once the Code and Guide are published.

Guide Section 6

Role of the Designated Officer (DO)

(6 Preliminary assessment stage – pages 12-14; and 7 Investigation stage – pages 15-19)

UNSW accepts that, unlike the current Code, where the Designated Person’s role ceases after findings of a preliminary investigation are given to the CEO, the Guideline provides for the Designated Officer‘s role to continue through further Investigation stages.

We accept this change and will implement it once the new Code and Guide are published.

Responsibilities for Institutions in Code

Removal of Adviser in research integrity role

UNSW notes the removal of the Adviser in research integrity role and its functions from the Guidance document, however notes its inclusion under institutional responsibilities.

UNSW supports a more proactive role for the Research Integrity Adviser (RIA) to promote the responsible research conduct.

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?: 
UNSW supports the new principles-based approach to the Code. We welcome the separation of the high-level principles and expectations of researchers and institutions from the more detailed guidance on key responsible research practices, such as research data management, authorship etc. The Code will likely enhance the consistent interpretation of the responsible conduct of research principles and expectations in an environment of increasing researcher mobility.
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?: 
UNSW agrees that the principles generally capture the expectations for responsible research conduct across all research disciplines. Care will need to be taken when developing the future guides, to ensure that they are broad enough to reflect multiple disciplines and rapidly evolving technologies and research practices. For example, in relation to authorship, UNSW supports a non-prescriptive approach, which recognises various forms of international publication and publication media across 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.: 
UNSW supports this approach. Currently, the rigid distinction in the existing Code, between a breach and research misconduct contributes to the difficulty for institutions making findings of research misconduct. Moving to a model where researchers are found to have been either ‘compliant’ or ‘not compliant’ with the Code should address the difficult interplay with enterprise agreements, and provide greater flexibility and scope for compliance to institutions in handling allegations. It is anticipated that where a breach of the Code has been found, the institution’s enterprise agreement, or other policies or procedures would apply in determining appropriate penalties – from corrective or educative (for minor breaches), to termination (for serious breaches). The ARC and NHMRC Guidelines for handling allegations will need to be updated to reflect this change. ARIC’s scope and terms of reference, in relation to reviewing institutional processes for identifying and responding to breaches of the Code, will also require a comprehensive review to reflect this change.
Question 4: Do you think the process described for investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code is clearly described and practical?: 
Yes. The process appears to be clearly described and practical.
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.: 
UNSW does not believe case studies would assist in investigating or managing potential breaches. Every case is different. Including case studies in guidance documents could add unnecessary complexity for institutions when handling matters, as they may open investigative and management decisions up to debate and disagreement by those most affected. Instead, UNSW would welcome the ARC/NHMRC providing institutional investigators with an information resource (preferably on a secure website for institutional decision makers), to support the development of research integrity advisors in identifying, investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code.
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?: 
UNSW does not believe that the inclusion of a procedural fairness appeal mechanism for a complainant is necessary or warranted. At UNSW, appeal mechanisms are already embedded within Enterprise Agreements (for staff), and applicable policies and procedures (for students). The inclusion of a procedural fairness appeal mechanism for a complainant introduces unnecessary levels of appeal at each stage of the investigative process and imposes a significant administrative and financial burden on institutions. The law has now developed to the point where it is accepted that there is a duty to act fairly in making administrative decisions which affect the rights, interests and legitimate expectations of an individual. Or as concisely expressed by the High Court, what is required by procedural fairness is a fair hearing, not a fair outcome. Extending the scope of procedural fairness to complainants in the manner proposed would be an expansion of current legal obligations. It is appropriate for there to be an institutional appeal mechanism, where an adverse finding has been made against a staff member or research student, and disciplinary action is required. It is appropriate for complainants to continue to be able to appeal to ARIC, where they believe that an institutional process has not been followed.
Question 7: Please comment on which three topics you would nominate as being the highest priority and why.: 
UNSW generally agrees with the proposal to develop guides on ‘authorship’ and ‘data management’ to support the implementation of the Code. In relation to ‘data management’, we believe that there should be two separate guides: • research data management; and • research materials management. The proposed guide on research data management should address issues of open access, data classification and data sharing/transfer. The guide on authorship should: • be broad and exclude any reference to originally signed authorship statements; and • reference publisher requirements and author affiliations. UNSW nominates ‘collaborative research’ and ‘supervisory responsibility’ as high priority areas for additional guidance based on the number of complaints and questions received each year in relation to these two topic areas. UNSW does not support the proposal to develop guides which relate to legislation (where it will likely replicate the work of other agencies) or where there is already a wealth of information. For example, intellectual property, clinical trials etc.
General comments

UNSW commends the authors on:

  • adopting a principles-based approach to research integrity within the Code; and
  • developing a practical Guide that adopts a less prescriptive approach to investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code.

 However, UNSW is of the view that the Code could be improved by:

  • adjusting the expression and language used throughout to reposition the document, from a focus upon compliance to one which socialises the positive behaviours of a responsible research culture;
  • adding an overarching statement to clarify that the principles apply across all stages and aspects of research; and
  • more explicitly linking responsibilities set out in the Code to the principles of responsible research conduct.

Structure of the Code

UNSW commends the authors on the improvements made to date on the Code, and reiterates its previous recommendation that the Australian code for responsible conduct of research comprise:

  • Code of Conduct for Responsible Research which outlines the principles of a responsible research culture and expected researcher conduct and responsibilities; and
  • Guidelines for Institutions which provide institutions with guidance on how responsible conduct of research can be fostered and supported, and guidelines on investigating and managing potential breaches of the Code of Conduct. 

Separating the Code will make it simpler, more succinct and more accessible for researchers and institutions.

Language and expression of the Code

UNSW notes that the approach and language used throughout the new Code remains largely compliance focused.

We recommend that the authors adjust the language used in the Code, to re-position the document from a compliance document to one which positively expresses the expectations for professional conduct and shared values of a responsible research culture.

For example:

Instead of the current expression: ‘Researchers will disclose and manage actual potential or perceived conflicts of interest’

UNSW suggests: ‘Researchers disclose and manage actual potential or perceived conflicts of interest’

Removing the word ‘will’ indicates that the positive research behaviour is the social (research community) norm.  This approach is likely to be more effective in influencing and reinforcing positive behaviour.  Feedback from UNSW researchers suggest that removing the words ‘will’, ‘must’ and ‘should’ from the document supports the notion that the Code sets a standard of behaviour that the overwhelming majority of researchers already meet.

The new Code should read as an ‘honour code’ for researchers proud of their profession.

For further information

Should you have any further questions or wish to clarify any aspect of this feedback, please do not hesitate to contact Ms Bronwyn Greene, Director, UNSW Integrity on [NHMRC has removed personal information]

Page reviewed: 17 September, 2018