How we deal with alleged research misconduct: NHMRC

If allegations of research misconduct are upheld, NHMRC can cease funding and recover previous funds. Image from shutterstock.com

Scientific research requires a commitment to total honesty. This is a foundation upon which the country’s two major research funders’ Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research is based.

Misconduct in research has been the subject of national and international debate in recent times and it’s timely to consider how allegations of such misconduct are managed in Australia.

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC), together with Universities Australia, developed the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research in 2007. It sets out the responsibilities of institutions and of researchers who receive research council funding.

Part A of the code outlines these responsibilities, as both general principles and its specific aspects, such a management of data, supervision, publication, authorship, peer review, conflicts of interest, and collaborative research.

How to properly raise and address allegations of research misconduct are set out in part B of the code.

Part B provides details on:

The committee can consider complaints that an institution did not conduct an inquiry properly. Image from shutterstock.com
  • procedures including the appointment of a “designated person” to undertake initial investigations of allegations
  • the role of advisers in research integrity to advise a person making the allegation, the need for procedural fairness
  • the nature of an institutional research misconduct inquiry
  • when an external enquiry should be set up
  • the responsibilities of the head of the institution.

The NHMRC and ARC back this up by requiring universities and other research institutions to agree to abide by the requirements of the code if they are in receipt of our funding. Allegations under investigation at NHMRC-funded institutions must be notified to us, and we must be promptly informed of the outcome.

Alternatively, if the allegation is brought to the NHMRC’s attention, we inform the research institution and require them to report the outcome to us.

If allegations of research misconduct are upheld, NHMRC can cease funding and recover previous funds. We also inform the researchers involved that we will not accept applications from them.

Often, when there is a minor breach, the outcome is formal counselling and training in responsible research conduct.

Two years ago, the ARC and NHMRC put in place an appeals mechanism, the Australian Research Integrity Committee (ARIC), chaired by Ron Brent, a previous deputy Commonwealth ombudsman.

The committee can consider complaints that an institution did not conduct an inquiry properly. It reports its findings to either the NHMRC or ARC and, if appropriate, we are able to sanction research institutions or researchers, or both.

The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research was implemented in 2007 and the Australian Research Integrity Committee in 2011. So far, the NHMRC has been generally pleased with the response of institutions to the requirements of the code. To date, relatively few cases have been referred to the appeals committee.

State anti-corruption bodies have been involved in some cases. The Commonwealth itself has powers to investigate the use (or misuse) of Commonwealth funding through fraud control measures.

When there is a minor breach, the outcome is usually formal counselling and training. Image from shutterstock.com

For researchers and institutions, there would be recourse to employment tribunals, administrative review bodies such as an ombudsman, or judicial review.

We must remember that both those making allegations and those accused deserve fairness of process and natural justice. And the requirements of privacy laws must also be observed.

Researchers will sometime transgress, and the responsibility of the institutions and funders of research is to investigate, allegations of misconduct while seeking to protect the legitimate rights of all parties.

The most important matter emphasised in the code is for research institutes and universities to practice preventative approaches, to (in the words of the code) instill a culture of:

  • honesty and integrity
  • respect for human research participants, animals and the environment
  • good stewardship of public resources used to conduct research
  • appropriate acknowledgement of the role of others in research
  • responsible communication of research results

Everyone involved in research needs to take responsibility for ensuring that this culture of honesty and integrity is system-wide. People expect nothing less.