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New routines for investigating scientific misconduct

27 April 2017

Since last autumn, reports of misconduct in research at Uppsala University have been investigated according to new rules of procedure. A Board is now responsible for performing this task on the Vice-Chancellor’s behalf.

The University’s handling of research misconduct became topical in 2016, one reason being the national debate triggered by the Macchiarini scandal last spring. Proliferating reports of suspected misconduct are another reason for seeking a stronger grip on the issue. Efforts culminated in the formation of the University’s Board to investigate misconduct in research, which has been dealing with allegations since the autumn.

“If a report is received, it has to go straight to the Vice-Chancellor, who decides whether the case should be referred to the Board for investigation,” says Erik Lempert. Now Chair of the new Board, Lempert used to chair the Regional Ethical Review Board in Uppsala and has experience as a judge.

Reports of misconduct were previously submitted to the Deans and handled at faculty level, jointly with the Legal Affairs Division.

“It’s good to have a group dedicated to these matters, with the capacity to shape practice,” says Lempert.

He mentions the demarcation issues that often arise in the misconduct cases, and emphasises the importance of having a common definition of misconduct.

At present, Uppsala University uses the OECD definition: “fabrication, falsification and plagiarism”. The University has, in addition, included in its definition of misconduct unauthorised authorship claims and failure to apply for permission where such application is recommended.

“This is quite a widely accepted definition, although there are problems of interpretation on where to draw the line,” Lempert says.

“As I see it, the biggest problem, and one we’re currently addressing, is to differentiate allegations of misconduct from those of poor quality in research. We’re not a unit that assesses the qualitative aspect; that’s done by people in the research field, in the usual way.”

When the Vice-Chancellor assigns the Board to investigate a matter, it begins by notifying the alleged offender. What happens next depends somewhat on the type of case involved, but the normal procedure so far has been to request statements from those concerned and find a specialist who can give an expert opinion.

“It can sometimes be difficult to find experts who are willing to step in, and free from conflicts of interest. If it’s a narrow academic field, they often can’t be found in Sweden,” says Anne Nilsson, Administrative Manager at the Regional Ethical Review Board in Uppsala and Secretary of the University’s Board for investigation of misconduct in research.

Once all the statements have been received, they are shared with the alleged offender, who may in turn submit comments. This is a process that can sometimes drag on. However, the Board tries to act promptly and aim to deal with cases within six months.

“This kind of investigation affects the researcher, and the sooner it’s dealt with the better. We handle cases as fast as we can, but there are certain guarantees of legal security that have to be complied with,” Lempert says.

During the investigation, the University may also obtain an opinion from the expert group on research misconduct at the Central Ethical Review Board. Once the investigation is completed, the Board submits its opinion to the Vice-Chancellor, who decides whether to impose any sanctions. These often fall within the framework of labour law, and it may also be necessary to notify academic journals.

“These are the formal sanctions. The informal ones are also severe when a person has been reported and found guilty,” says Erik Lempert.



How extensive is research fraud?

  • In 2010–2015, Swedish universities examined 110 cases where misconduct was suspected. Sixteen cases of misconduct were found – an average of 2.7 cases a year. (Source: “New procedurs to promote good practice and deal with research misconduct”, SOU 2017:10.)
  • At Uppsala University in the same period, six cases were investigated and misconduct was found in one. (Source: Legal Affairs Division at Uppsala University.)