Maintaining research integrity standards

Thu, Feb 28, 2013, 00:00

Opinion:Research integrity relates to the performance of research to the highest standards of professionalism and rigour, and to the accuracy and integrity of the research record in publications.

Across the world every week new cases of breaches of research integrity are reported in the scientific media. It is essential that the Irish research system protects its reputation for the quality and integrity of its research activity and outputs. Research integrity is often confused with research ethics but is far wider and reaches into all aspects of scientific inquiry across all disciplines. It can be broken down into three areas, fabrication, falsification and plagiarism.

Fabrication is when results are invented to suit a particular hypothesis. In the Netherlands recently there was the case of Diederik Stapel, the social scientist and former well-respected faculty member at Tilburg University, who fabricated data in 55 articles and book chapters. So far, 31 of Stapel’s published papers have been retracted and he has returned his PhD to the University of Amsterdam.

Falsification is when data is invented, discarded or manipulated to support the author’s theory. The example with the widest impact was Andrew Wakefield in Britain, who claimed the MMR vaccine induced autism in children. As a consequence of this and uncritical media reportage, vaccination rates dropped. It is no coincidence that measles was declared endemic in Britain in 2008, 14 years after it had been declared under control.

Plagiarism is where another person’s ideas, words or results are presented as one’s own without giving credit. This can be due to laziness by simply copying text but omitting to credit the original author. Earlier this month the German minister for education Annette Schavan resigned after the University of Düsseldorf revoked her doctorate, having ruled that she had plagiarised parts of her thesis.

National system

Over the past two years there has been a concerted effort to introduce a national system for research integrity in Ireland. A working group was established in 2011 between the Irish Universities Association, Health Research Board, Science Foundation Ireland , Royal Irish Academy, Enterprise Ireland, Higher Education Authority, the Irish Research Council, and Quality and Qualifications Ireland.

The working group drew on the 2010 Royal Irish Academy publication Ensuring Integrity in Irish Research, which arose from a policy workshop. The policy developed by this group is framed as a set of commitments that adopters of the policy will agree to uphold. This policy statement has originated from the seven universities and the funding agencies. While the policy has been developed with the universities it is certainly open for other higher education and research organisations to adopt.

The first commitment is to ensure the highest standards of integrity in all aspects of research, founded on basic principles of good research practice to be observed by all researchers and research organisations. The second is maintaining a national research environment founded upon a culture of integrity and based on the sharing of internationally recognised good practice and support for the development of researchers.

A key part of this is research integrity training for new and experienced researchers. This will also be integrated into teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. At the core of ensuring research integrity is education from undergraduate to senior researcher.

A practical recommendation is that the universities develop a common module on research-integrity principles and practices as part of undergraduate and postgraduate training. In addition, there should be support for senior researchers and academics to raise awareness of issues and responsibilities, especially as they are very influential in defining acceptable research practice for the next generation of researchers.

The third commitment is to working together to reinforce and safeguard the integrity of the Irish research system and reviewing progress regularly. This will include developing “Good practice guidelines” appropriate and specific to Ireland as envisaged in the European code of conduct for research integrity. The final commitment is to use transparent, robust and fair processes to deal with allegations of research misconduct.

Research integrity is best ensured when individual researchers, institutions and funding bodies work together to create effective processes. The draft policy statement is now open for consultation until March 8th at

* Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association,

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