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How open should institutions be about the outcomes of research misconduct investigations?


There are some issues which crop up in requests for our advice time and time again. One of these is how open should institutions be when discussing the outcomes of investigations into allegations of research misconduct.

What should they say when an enquiry finishes? What information should they give out about a proven allegation? What do they do when an allegation is dismissed and researchers are exonerated? These questions are also frequently discussed in the academic media, often in relation to specific investigations or cases.

Confidentiality when examining allegations of research misconduct is important. It is an essential part of the process, as much as ensuring that investigations are objective, thorough and fair. But transparency is also important. Transparency when an investigation is underway, so all involved understand the process being used and their rights and obligations. And transparency at the conclusion, so appropriate disclosures can be made to involved parties.

Balancing confidentiality and transparency can be challenging. To help institutions grappling with this difficult issue, UKRIO sets out basic standards for reporting the outcome of misconduct investigations in its Procedure for the Investigation of Misconduct in Research. These standards include appropriate disclosures to relevant parties such as regulators, funders, professional organisations, partner institutions, journals and research participants, including their doctors if necessary.

The key is ‘appropriate disclosures to relevant parties’. Sometimes these disclosures may be in confidence but the aim throughout is to ensure that all involved parties have the information they need to take whatever actions might be necessary: to correct the record of research, to protect participants and to address any other issues that might have come out of an investigation.

Our Procedure also recommends that if a case has generated media interest, the organisation should make a statement on the outcome – not least to restore the reputations of whistleblowers who have raised concerns in good faith and researchers who have been exonerated of misconduct. This can also help maintain trust in an institution.

Given clear trends towards greater transparency and open accountability, we feel that institutions should also judge whether they could go beyond basic standards and be more open in particular cases. They must of course meet their legal and ethical obligations, including the requirements of employment law and data protection. But we think they should also take into account the increasing interest in issues of research practice and the need to retain the public’s trust.

We live in an age where – like it or not – what is not transparent is often assumed to be inaccurate or worse until proved otherwise. The UK’s mechanisms for demonstrating good research practice are complex and not especially transparent: justice may be done but is not often seen to be done. In contrast, openness is rapidly becoming the expected norm.

UKRIO will be examining this important topic further and will work with our subscribers, researchers and others to develop best practice guidance for the research community. And of course we are always available to give advice to institutions on what they might do in specific cases, drawing on our considerable – and unique – practical experience.

James Parry, Chief Executive, UKRIO.

For further information about UKRIO’s Procedure for the Investigation of Misconduct in Research or to seek our advice, please contact us.

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