Can research be made scandal proof?

IT has been a long time coming, but Australia finally has an official body to oversee the integrity of research.

The federal Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr recently announced the establishment of the Australian Research Integrity Committee.

The media release noted: “From today, where it is believed an institution has not taken appropriate action in their internal investigations into alleged research misconduct, individuals and groups can request the case be reviewed by the Committee.”

This review process will be in line with the framework set out in the Australian Code for Responsible Conduct of Research, which promotes integrity by guiding institutions and researchers in responsible practice.

It has taken almost 10 years to reach this juncture since the infamous Bruce Hall affair, which involved allegations of research misconduct at the University of New South Wales. This drawn-out saga served to highlight the many vagaries and inconsistencies in the way Australian institutions investigated accusations of research misconduct.

Almost 10 years! Things move slowly in the somnolence and solitude of Canberra’s bureaucracy, with its onion-like configuration of committees and consultative bodies. Even so, the newly hatched committee bears a strong resemblance to a similar body long in residence at the US National Institutes of Health.

The media release from the ministers continued, proclaiming: “The Committee does not replace institutional investigation. Research institutions maintain their autonomy and are responsible for investigating allegations of research misconduct in the first instance.”

And herein lies the crux of the matter. How effective can an internal investigation of research misconduct ever be?

Ideally, the committee and its processes should have six central principles, as I noted in an MJA editorial published in the wake of the Hall affair:

  • Once allegations of scientific misconduct or fraud have been made, they should be addressed by an external and independent inquiry.
  • The external inquiry should have statutory power to investigate.
  • Inquiries should include at least one expert from the same scientific discipline as the scientist under investigation.
  • To preserve public confidence, inquiries into scientific misconduct should aim for the highest degree of transparency and accessibility of the final report.
  • Universities, research institutions, research societies and funding bodies need to collectively define uniform processes and procedures for addressing and adjudicating on scientific research and fraud.
  • There is a need to shift the emphasis from managing scientific misconduct to preventing it.

And in this lies the maxim: prevention is better than cure.

Yet, how many Australian research institutions have enacted these principles?

It could well be argued that this recent edict from Canberra on research integrity essentially provides an avenue for post-hoc external inquiries. How will top-down management actually advance research integrity?

Unless there is a corresponding climate change in the current ethos operating in our competitive and cash-strapped research community ― change that encourages contemporaneous, open and frank communication between researchers and the institutions in which they work ― this is destined to become yet another well-intentioned edict doomed to gather dust.

That is, until the next scandal erupts …

Dr Martin Van Der Weyden is emeritus editor of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Posted 28 February 2011

3 thoughts on “From the sidelines: Martin Van Der Weyden

  1. Robert Loblay says:

    The notion that “…Australia finally has an official body to oversee the integrity of research” is laughable. The new Australian Research Integrity Committee will do no such thing. Oversight of research integrity is done by research ethics committees and their parent institutions. The only remit of this new bureaucratic creation is to review the fairness of institutional procedures after there has been a formal investigation of alleged research misconduct, and only if requested to do so by an aggrieved party. Perhaps it would have saved Bernie the time & expense of going to court, but beyond that, this committee has no investigative powers and HAS NO TEETH. Sorry to disappoint you Martin, but the way it’s constituted it will not even be capable of providing “an avenue for post-hoc external inquiries”. Ten years down the track, I’m afraid little has been learned from the train-wreck that was the ‘Hall affair’.

  2. Frank Ekin says:

    I gathered patients for a number of the ISIS and other studies including LIPID. In the LIPID study we entered a patient but without the required sighting of ECG evidence of a previous heart attack. This was picked up at 2 successive audits. This resulted in Susan Sime and Paul Glasiou taking me through all our 54 cases finding that this one error did not prejudice the study in general nor our contribution in particular. I thought this was superb, and it gave me a lot of confidence, there was a great value at being presented with decisions I made years before. My collegues in Maryborough thought it reflected badly on my work and it became evermore difficult to contribute to further multicentre studies.
    So this story reflects a misconception on research but also shows that good governance can benefit someone like me.

  3. Dr Bernie Tuch says:

    What Dr Van Der Weyden says is accurate, and I hope he is correct and the edict does gather dust. However, I think this is unlikely, and see the Committee as the Australian medical and scientific community itself addressing issues that are currently not handled in any other way within our section of society. Prior to the establishment of this Committee, researchers who felt they had been hard done by their institution re a research allegation had only one recourse open, when direct negotiations failed. That was to go to the legal profession and take an action against their institution.
    I was in exactly this position recently, and had to go to the NSW Supreme Court to show that the processes the Institution was using were both biased and unfair (Tuch vs South Eastern Sydney Illawarra Area Health Service NSWSC 1207 12 November 2009).
    The resources required for an individual to take this course of action are quite considerable, and the personal and financial risks enormous.
    The availability to researchers of a Committee answerable to the NHMRC & ARC, hopefully with teeth, will help ensure two outcomes: 1. Institutions utilise fair and external reviews when allegations are made against individuals; and 2. Researchers have an independent port of call that is financially more accessible when they feel they are being unjustly treated.

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