Research is fundamental to the process of pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. Research helps cure diseases, tackle climate change, and understand the world around us. The UK has an enviable reputation for high-quality research, and researchers are among the most trusted groups of people in the eyes of the public. It is recognised that the vast majority of research undertaken in the UK is of high quality and high integrity.
Nevertheless, error, questionable practices, and outright fraud are possible in any human endeavour, and research integrity must be taken seriously and tackled head-on. The 2012 Concordat to Support Research Integrity provided a set of high-level commitments in this vein, but, six years on, while all the most research intensive-universities are complying with key recommendations of the Concordat, around a quarter of universities overall are not fulfilling the basic Concordat recommendation of producing an annual report on research integrity.
Compliance with the Concordat has technically been a prerequisite for receiving funding from UK research councils and higher education funding councils since 2013, but non-compliance has not led to any hard consequences. This reflects the fact that the Concordat has only high-level commitments and recommendations, meaning that ‘compliance’ is difficult to assess in practice. More broadly, there has been a lack of co-ordinated leadership to drive the implementation of its recommendations in universities, such as transparency in declaring the number of misconduct investigations carried out each year. The Concordat should be tightened so that compliance can be more easily assessed, with a timetabled route-map to securing 100% compliance. We welcome Universities UK’s plans to convene a meeting of the Concordat signatories to discuss the issues raised in our report and look forward to seeing further action in this area.
The current lack of consistent transparency means that it is impossible to assess the scale of the research integrity issue, leading to accusations that parts of the sector are policing themselves in a secretive way in order to maintain its reputation or, worse, a perception that investigations are not conducted properly in order to avoid embarrassment. Meanwhile, there is a risk that a future high-profile scandal could expose any weaknesses in this arrangement. Fraud appears to be rare, but the number of institutions reporting no investigations each year does not tally with other available information—the self-reported pressures on researchers to compromise on standards, an increase in the rate of journal articles being retracted, and a growth in image manipulation in articles. Part of the cause may be a lack of understanding of the principles of statistics among researchers, and greater emphasis should be placed on statistical rigour. The sector needs to see increased transparency and reporting of problems as a positive sign that issues are being identified and dealt with accordingly, rather than as a threat.
We see a gap in the UK research integrity system for a new committee to provide a means of independently verifying whether a research institution has followed appropriate processes in investigating misconduct, following similar models in Canada and Australia. The primary responsibility to investigate misconduct should remain with the employer, but there is also a need to improve confidence in the existing system of self-regulation and to adjust for the potential conflict of interest of ‘self-policing’. More broadly, the new committee should be responsible for championing research integrity in the sector, driving the future implementation of a tightened Research Integrity Concordat, and pursuing issues we identify in this report. The new committee will need to be established by and work closely with UK Research and Innovation, and produce an annual report on the state of research integrity in the UK. This is an opportunity for the research community to get ahead of this issue; without such a body being established, there is a risk that the demand for statutory regulation will grow in response to any future scandals, despite a consensus against such regulation within the community.
Meanwhile, there are other steps that can be taken to support research integrity rather than simply responding to problems. We are encouraged to hear that research integrity will form part of the ‘environment’ judgements for the next Research Excellence Framework, and that there are moves towards appropriate publishing of datasets, and better reporting of research methods. Meanwhile, UKRI needs to understand how the pressures and incentives within the research funding system affect research behaviour and consider where counterbalances are needed to ensure a healthy research culture. Training is key to ensuring that the right research culture is imbued by each new generation of researchers and their supervisors, and to ensuring that errors such as common misuses of statistics are avoided. In order to increase the effectiveness of research, increased emphasis should be put on the need to publish ‘negative’ research findings, especially in the field of medicine.
Employers, funders and publishers of research need to be able to share information to support investigations of misconduct, and it is encouraging that protocols are being developed to help employers to manage cases which cross institutional boundaries.The Committee states
In January 2017 our predecessor Committee launched a follow-up inquiry into research integrity, to coincide with the publication of a briefing on this topic from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).
The Committee called for written submissions on the issues identified in the POST briefing, including:
- The extent of the research integrity problem;
- Causes and drivers of recent trends;
- The effectiveness of controls/regulation (formal and informal), and what further measures if any are needed;
- What matters should be for the research/academic community to deal with, and which for Government.
That inquiry was ended prematurely by the dissolution of Parliament for the General Election in 2017. We decided to continue this inquiry in the new Parliament, drawing on the 82 submissions to our predecessors and a further 48 accepted and published by us. We held six oral evidence sessions, hearing from 27 witnesses. We are grateful for all these contributions to our work.
We did not seek to investigate specific allegations of research misconduct or to re-open old cases. We and our predecessor Committee rejected several written submissions on that basis. However, a small number of cases are referred to in our report where they illustrate current issues relating to research integrity.Its Conclusions and Recommendations are
1. The Science Minister’s initial reluctance to give evidence to our inquiry was disappointing, not least as it risked sending the message that the Government does not take this issue seriously. Nevertheless, we welcome the fact that that the Minister was subsequently willing to appear and are grateful for his responses to our questions. (Paragraph 8)
2. The Government rightly invests considerable sums of public money in research, and investment in research and development as a proportion of GDP is set to grow further in the coming years. The Government needs to be confident that all possible steps are being taken to ensure that this money is not wasted through problems with research integrity, and that the research that it buys is as reliable as possible. While the Government should not seek to interfere directly in research matters or compromise the independence of universities, it should nevertheless maintain an active interest in supporting research integrity and ensuring that all elements of self-regulation are functioning well in order to get the best value possible from public investment. (Paragraph 9) Understanding and measuring ‘research integrity’
3. The available data on misconduct investigations suggest that serious research misconduct is rare, but it is impossible to be certain without better data. There is a mismatch between the number of investigations and the scale of reported temptations to compromise on research standards, the ‘reproducibility crisis’ in some disciplines, the growth in journal article retraction rates, and trends in image manipulation. We hope that most researchers will never succumb to the temptations to compromise on research standards, and some of these trends may be the product of increased detection and correction of honest errors. Nevertheless, it is worrying that there seem to be so few formal research misconduct investigations conducted by universities. Increases in the number of investigations should be seen as a healthy sign of more active self-regulation. Further work is needed to determine the scale of the problem. (Paragraph 28)
The Concordat to Support Research Integrity
4. Most universities take their research integrity responsibilities seriously, but progress in implementing the Concordat to Support Research Integrity across the whole sector is disappointing. Six years on from the signing of the Concordat, the sector as a whole still falls some way short of full compliance in terms of publishing an annual statement, which risks giving the impression of pockets of complacency. We were surprised by the reasons that some universities gave for not publishing an annual statement on research integrity as recommended by the Concordat. The majority of universities have successfully balanced transparency against confidentiality in producing an annual statement, but a few are lagging behind and see transparency as a threat to their public image. Publishing an annual statement is a positive opportunity for an institution to set out the steps that it is taking to safeguard research standards, as well as to report on the number of investigations. We were encouraged that our letter to all Universities UK members prompted some of them to take steps to improve their compliance with the Concordat. More leadership is required to drive the implementation of the Concordat across the whole of the research sector, and we return to this issue in Chapter 6. We welcome Universities UK’s plans to convene a Research Integrity Forum meeting to consider our recommendations relating to the Concordat and look forward to seeing the results of their work. (Paragraph 39)
5. Compliance with the Concordat has technically been a condition of receiving funding from research councils and higher education funding councils since 2013, but meaningful sanctions have never been deployed. The Concordat contains mainly high-level statements rather than explicit measurable requirements, and comprehensive information on ‘compliance’ is not collected by the funders. We recommend that the signatories update and strengthen the Concordat by making the requirements and expectations clearer, and produce a route map and timetable for reaching 100% compliance with the strengthened version within the next year. UKRI should collect and publish details of universities that are not compliant. In particular, the Concordat should be strengthened in relation to training on research integrity (discussed in Chapter 4), processes for responding to allegations of misconduct (see Chapter 5), commitments to clinical trials transparency (which we will return to in a dedicated report) and publication of ‘negative’ research results. (Paragraph 43)
6. We endorse the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s call for Government departments to sign up to the Concordat on Research Integrity to ensure consistency of approaches to research governance. If the Concordat is suitably strengthened, as we recommend above, this will be a useful step forward. We look forward to receiving further details of actions taken by the departments in response to his initiative in the Government’s response to this report. (Paragraph 46)
Supporting and promoting the integrity of research
7. It is surprising that most UK universities are not subscribers to the UK Research Integrity Office. The result is that the profile and impact of UKRIO might be highest with the institutions which already choose to participate, rather than the ones that might need the most help. The default assumption for all universities should be that they are subscribers to UKRIO, unless they can explain why they do not need to use UKRIO’s advisory services. We recommend that the Government and Universities UK write jointly to all universities to encourage them to engage with UKRIO and consider subscribing to its services. (Paragraph 50)
8. Creating a healthy ‘research culture’ is just as important as tackling lapses in research integrity, and would help ensure that a career in research is attractive to those who value rigour, accuracy, honest and transparency. We endorse Research England’s plans to require the REF 2021 assessors to consider how research integrity issues can be taken into account. We hope that this will underline the importance of research integrity to a healthy research environment, and counterbalance some of the pressures to compromise on integrity. For this to be successful it must be implemented in a way that encourages universities to be more transparent about research integrity and investigations, rather than an additional incentive to avoid drawing attention to lapses in integrity. (Paragraph 57)
9. There is a need to understand more fully the effects of the current funding system on researcher and institutional behaviour, and consider how unwanted effects can be minimised. We recommend that UKRI commission research to understand the effects of incentives in the research system on researcher behaviour and assess where adjustments or counterbalances may be needed to support research integrity. (Paragraph 58)
10. We are encouraged to hear that some universities make training in research integrity a mandatory part of doctoral studies and include it in their research supervisor training programme. It is important that the attitudes to research integrity transmitted to the next generation of researchers are the right ones, and that those supervising them are also suitably trained. We recommend that UKRIO provide guidance to universities on best practice in delivering training to doctoral supervisors. (Paragraph 66)
11. The research councils do not have reliable information on what training is currently being delivered. The increased concentration of training, through ‘Centres for Doctoral Training’, presents an opportunity for monitoring whether suitable training on research integrity is being provided as part of a PhD. We recommend that UKRI assess whether suitable training is being provided in line with current requirements and report back to us on its findings. UKRI should also consider further the case for centralised provision of training on research integrity, or standards that could be set. (Paragraph 67)
12. We recommend that UKRI consider how best to encourage research teams to engage with statisticians as part of their research, and how best to improve the statistical competencies of researchers in general. (Paragraph 68)
13. We are encouraged to see moves towards open publishing of datasets, and steps being taken to improve reporting of research methods through reporting checklists. However, we also recognise the need for protocols for accessing research data to ensure that secondary analysis is conducted appropriately. The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation should consider further how best to balance the need for data to be openly shared with the need to ensure that data is used responsibly in secondary analysis. (Paragraph 75)
Detecting and responding to problems with research integrity
14. There is a continuing need for publishers to invest in techniques and technologies to spot problems with research papers. While the purpose of peer review is not to detect fraud, the sector’s responsibility for the integrity of the research base includes taking reasonable steps to ensure that technology to detect problems is developed and put to good use. This may be an area in which market forces do not obviously support this investment of resource. A Concordat-style set of commitments in the academic publishing community to invest jointly in software for the detection of image manipulation—or common standards for checking images—may be required. We recommend that UKRIO convene a discussion with publishers to explore this. (Paragraph 82)
15. Universities and other employers of researchers need to be able to demonstrate that they are following best practice in the way that investigations are conducted. The annual narrative report recommended by the Concordat (see Chapter 3) is one opportunity for institutions to review their processes and set out whether they reflect UKRIO’s guidance. Any suggestion that best practices are not being followed is a concern, particularly given the reputational risk of, for example, not using external panel members in some stages of the process. UKRIO’s guidance on misconduct processes was published in 2008; it is worrying that, ten years on, some institutions may not yet have acted on it. We recommend that following best practice in use of external panel members form an explicit part of a strengthened Concordat. (Paragraph 88)
16. Cases of researchers committing misconduct at a string of institutions suggest that either some universities are using non-disclosure agreements to keep misconduct quiet, or are not being sufficiently diligent in checking references when hiring researchers. Hiding misconduct through non-disclosure agreements is not acceptable, not least as it effectively makes the institution complicit in future misconduct by that individual. The Government should ask UKRI to consider how this practice can be effectively banned by institutions receiving public funds, and statements to this effect should be included in a strengthened Concordat (see Chapter 3). Meanwhile, there is a need for greater diligence in employers checking for past misconduct, and for previous employers fully disclosing such information. (Paragraph 101)
17. Researcher mobility means that research misconduct investigations may require coordination between current and former employers, and between journals and funders. We are encouraged to see the Russell Group developing protocols for communicating with related parties when dealing with allegations that cross institutional boundaries. There is a need for all parts of the system to work together—including employers, funders and publishers of research outputs—but there appear to be problems with the required sharing of confidential information. We recommend that employers, funders and publishers of research work together to agree a protocol for information-sharing on researchers involved in research integrity problems in a way that meets employment protection legislation. Commitments in this vein could form part of a tightened Concordat (see Chapter 3). (Paragraph 106)
Regulating research and researchers
18. UK research has an enviable record of excellence and public trust, but this should not be taken for granted. There is a risk that public trust in science could be eroded in the future through high-profile examples of research misconduct, and a risk that this could lead to demands for knee-jerk and ill-advised changes to the research system in the UK. There is a need for the research community—including funders, publishers, and employers of researchers—to stay ahead of research integrity issues and how they are dealt with in public policy. The UK’s position of international high regard and public trust in researchers is strengthened if the community has the confidence to admit that no area of human endeavour is immune to misconduct and error at some scale. (Paragraph 110)
19. We see a gap in the UK system for a body that can provide a means of independently verifying whether a research institution has followed appropriate processes to investigate misconduct, as in Australia and Canada. We recommend that the Government ask UKRI to establish a new national committee which could undertake this role. Employers should still have the first responsibility for investigating and taking action in response to allegations of research misconduct, but there should be a means of checking that processes have been followed appropriately. The new committee should be able to recommend to UKRI that funding be restricted or reclaimed if an employer has not followed appropriate processes in responding to research misconduct. While established under the auspices of UKRI, the new committee should have its own secretariat and sufficient independence from it so that it can act in cases where the research is not funded by UKRI. Without a body along the lines we suggest there is a risk that demands for statutory regulation will grow in the future. We recognise that there is a strong consensus within the community about the disadvantages that overbearing regulation could bring. We argue, however, that the onus is now on the community to support steps to avoid this. (Paragraph 122)
20. We recommend that the national committee should also have formal responsibility for promoting research integrity, as the equivalent body does in Canada. Working with Universities UK, the new committee should take responsibility for driving the implementation of an updated and strengthened Concordat, and following up on other recommendations to the sector in this report. Meanwhile, UKRIO should continue its work in providing advice on research integrity and sharing best practice. It should now advise UKRI on the creation of the new body, including its work methods, drawing on the best international examples. (Paragraph 123)
21. Transparency is a key feature of a healthy research integrity system. The new national research integrity committee we recommend should publish an annual report on the state of research integrity in the UK, looking across the whole of research, and collecting information on: retractions; misconduct investigations and their outcomes; Concordat compliance; and training undertaken. The data for this will come from university narrative statements and the aggregated data on screening-phase investigations that UKRI is now being provided with. The proposed national committee should also consider how best to engage industry with the issue of research integrity, and should incorporate meaningful information on this aspect in its annual report. (Paragraph 128)