How to support research integrity and why it’s important
To win public funding, researchers and their universities must usually comply with a formal agreement on standards in UK research. James Parry, chief executive of the UK Research Integrity Office, explains why.
In recent years, discussion of issues such as research integrity, good research conduct and research misconduct has increased in the UK. The terminology has often varied but the focus has remained the same: what are the standards for conducting research—and are they being met?
The Concordat to Support Research Integrity published in 2012 is backed by the government, vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK and major UK research funders. It sets out five commitments that researchers and their employers, and funding agencies, should meet. These are broad, high-level statements and, like the Concordat itself, are designed to allow considerable autonomy in how they are implemented. The intent is not to straitjacket researchers into a particular approach but to allow them and their institutions to decide how best to apply the Concordat’s commitments in their particular research environments.
Several funding agencies, including the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute for Health Research, Research Councils UK and the seven research councils have made implementing the Concordat’s principles a condition of grant. The Higher Education Funding Council for England also requires its grant holders to implement the principles.
The UK Research Integrity Office, a charity promoting high standards in research, does not have a vested interest but applies the Concordat’s principles in its advisory service and helps researchers and universities to implement it.
The existence of the Concordat shouldn’t be seen as a sign that its publishers think UK research is rife with fraud or that researchers need to be policed. Some countries have taken a strict regulatory approach to research integrity, but the UK relies more on employers and researchers taking effective action to support good practice and address fraud when it occurs. UKRIO was set up as part of this approach and the Concordat can be seen as another step on this journey.
The Concordat, like all guidance documents, is not a panacea. It’s another tool to promote and sustain research integrity and its content will seem familiar to those acquainted with existing guidance. It builds on existing good practice and ties together principles from the requirements of funders. In many ways, it describes what research institutions are doing—or what they should be doing—already. Implementing its principles gives institutions the chance to review the measures they’ve taken to promote integrity in their research, fill any gaps and build on their successes.
We have found that, if the implementation of guidance is not supported, it can have limited effectiveness and lead to a box-ticking mentality. It needs to be backed by sufficient resources: staff, training, facilities and time. And implementation must be an ongoing process, to be promoted, monitored and reviewed.
Perhaps most importantly, implementation should not focus exclusively on compliance with the Concordat as a condition of grant. Researchers and institutions should comply with the terms and conditions of their funding contracts. But we have often found that they consider issues such as research ethics and integrity to be a matter of regulatory or contractual compliance, rather than inherent to professional conduct. This is a mistake. A narrow, box-ticking approach to the Concordat would miss the point of the document: to sustain and enhance good practice in UK research. We feel strongly that contractual compliance will flow naturally from a broad implementation of the commitments.
Fortunately, this is recognised by those backing the Concordat. RCUK is still testing how it will assess compliance, but its draft assessment questions are not aimed at micromanaging research or imposing a single approach across all disciplines. The questions allow for broad answers and institutional autonomy in implementation and compliance, as intended.
UKRIO has identified an essential theme running through the Concordat. As noted, the document builds on existing guidance and sets out what many institutions will already be doing or at least working towards. But what’s new is a clear signal that actions to support research integrity should take place in a more sustained and visible way.
Join the dots
This is a pan-disciplinary initiative. In our experience, some researchers—even some institutions—can feel that research integrity is somehow not relevant to their work. At their most fundamental level, standards for research practice do not ask a great deal: researchers must not lie when reporting data or results; they must not steal the work of others nor spend research funds on purposes for which they were not granted; and, most importantly, they must protect the safety, dignity and wellbeing of research participants.
As the standards are so self-evident, so the thinking goes, it must be straightforward for organisations to articulate them to researchers and for researchers to understand and put them into practice. The experiences of UKRIO suggest otherwise, and any guidance for researchers must overcome this challenge.
The Concordat is a clear signal that every institution, every discipline and every researcher must consider issues of research integrity. Actions taken should remain proportionate and allow for institutional autonomy, but they must be taken.
Issues that institutions sometimes treat as unconnected, such as research ethics, responding to allegations of research misconduct, and providing staff and student training, are linked by the Concordat. It calls for a more joined-up and proactive approach, not prescriptive micromanagement of researchers or blanket amalgamation of systems for research practice. Instead, researchers and employers should be aware that research integrity is central to all research.
Those who worked on the Concordat clearly expect institutions to be able to answer questions about the integrity of their research. It recommends that institutions make an annual statement on research integrity to their governing bodies, and that this be made public.
Institutions need to be certain that they have access to two pieces of information: what they’ve been doing and how well it’s been working. They may have systems and policies in place; they may be providing training. But what do researchers know of the systems? Have they read the policies and attended the training courses? This is about the flow of information: from central departments to researchers and back.
It is essential that research staff and students know what is expected of them. Institutions must also determine how they will help their researchers meet the required standards and publicise the support available. They must be sure that what they do is working and that there are no gaps in their research integrity provision. This can be harder than you might think.
Existing guidance on research practice suggests that institutions have a named contact who can be approached with any questions or concerns about research. In this way, a participant in a research project or a partner university would be able to raise any issues with an organisation quickly and easily. After all, it is straightforward for a university to put its research misconduct policy and the relevant named contact on its website. Or is it?
In summer 2012, we explored how easy it was to find contact information for the people responsible for research integrity. Less than a quarter of university websites provided such contact details. Something simple to do was not being done, though we hope ongoing implementation of the Concordat’s principles will improve this state of affairs.
Part of the process
The Concordat has the potential to support and enhance research conduct that is honest, accurate, safe, legal and ethical. The publication of standards is merely a step in the process. When properly implemented, standards for research practice can encourage researchers to engage critically with the practical, ethical and intellectual challenges of conducting high-quality research. They can assist them in considering the wider implications of their work and, perhaps most importantly, help them to consider issues and problems, and how they might be resolved, in advance.
UKRIO is working with many research organisations to assist them in implementing the commitments of the Concordat. For information on the support that we offer, please contact us.
James Parry is chief executive of the UK Research Integrity Office. Joining UKRIO in 2006, he took up his current role in 2008 and oversaw the transition of the organisation from a pilot project to a registered charity. Prior to joining UKRIO he worked as an archaeologist and a university administrator.
Note: this article first appeared in Funding Insight on November 19, 2013 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com. No fee was paid to UKRIO for this article.