A short guide to research misconduct

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Introduction

This guide aims to give useful information on allegations of research misconduct and research misconduct procedures, for anyone who has made an allegation or is considering doing so, who is subject to an allegation, or who is relatively new to research misconduct such as early-career researchers, journalists, or the public.

Misconduct in research can have serious consequences for individual researchers, employers, funders, research participants, and the wider public, and can damage public trust in research. Despite this, it is possible that some researchers are unfamiliar with what it is and how it is managed. This can mean that they find themselves ill-equipped to deal with a matter when it arises, either if they wish to raise a concern or deal with an allegation. The guide below demystifies research misconduct, what it is, and how it is managed and investigated. It has a focus on the UK.

What is research misconduct?

Different organisations have differing definitions, but an overarching definition might be ‘behaviours that deliberately or recklessly fall short of the standards expected in the conduct of research’, from the initial idea through to reporting outcomes.

As noted, it covers all stages in the research cycle and all aspects of it, for example the peer review process as well as misconduct in the actual conduct of the research. It is a spectrum rather than a hard and fast line. As noted above, a definition of research misconduct implies intent and/or recklessness in the behaviour, or a repeated pattern. A good general definition of research misconduct is in the Concordat to Support Research Integrity, under Commitment 4.

Poor behaviour outside this definition is known as ‘questionable research practice’, in that it does not meet the ideal standard but does not quite reach the definition of research misconduct. Further information on questionable research practices (also known as QRPs) can be found here. Genuine errors and reasonable differences in approach and methodology are not research misconduct, however strongly people disagree.

Examples of research misconduct include:

  • Using other people’s ideas, intellectual property, or work without their permission and/or acknowledging their input (plagiarism);
  • Breaching legal, ethical and professional requirements needed for research, for example those needed for human research participants, animals, or human organs or tissue used in research, or for the protection of the environment. An example of this includes proceeding with research without ethical approval or not obtaining informed consent.
  • Proceeding with research without necessary permissions and approvals in place;
  • Making up data or results, or other aspect of the research such as patient consent (fabrication);
  • Manipulating and/or selecting research processes, materials, equipment, data etc. to present a false impression or outcome (falsification);
  • Misrepresenting data or other information;
  • Failing to declare or appropriately manage conflicts of interest.

The ’standards expected’ are those that your employer will normally have put in place either in a Code of Practice for research or research handbook. You may also be informed of them during any induction, training and development. Funders of research also have expected standards in the conduct of research put in place, as do academic and learned bodies for their specific disciplines.

How are research misconduct allegations dealt with?

Most universities and other employers of researchers have set standards for good conduct in research that anyone undertaking research is expected to follow. This may take the form of a Code of Practice for Research. They will also have behavioural and disciplinary procedures in place for when these standards are breached. Potential matters of research misconduct may be complex and often require a level of expertise and disciplinary knowledge beyond standard workplace disciplinary offences. Investigations need to establish what has occurred and what is needed to correct the scholarly record, beyond establishing what a particular individual or group of individuals has done. For that reason, an investigation is normally held involving academic colleagues or ‘peers’.

The outcome of this investigation will vary depending on the findings, but the aim is to determine what has happened and who has done what, so that action can be taken, if appropriate, to rectify the matter, both in terms of a person’s behaviour and the research record, and any other consequences. The investigation itself is not a disciplinary process, though that may follow if it establishes that misconduct in research took place.

What is involved in a research misconduct investigation?

Research organisations normally have in place a procedure that sets out the process to be followed when an individual or group of individuals raises a concern relating to potential research misconduct is raised, as they are required to do by the Concordat to Research Integrity, the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, and the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity.

Each research organisation will normally have developed its own procedure and is responsible for operating it and for publicising it to staff and the outside world. Many contain similar features and UKRIO has a model procedure that sets out what we believe to be best practice in this area.

Common features include:

  • A matter is raised with the institution (it may be raised informally in the first instance). The person raising the concerns may be known as the initiator, complainant, or whistle-blower;
  • The relevant person within the institution (sometimes known as the responsible officer or Named Person’) will first need to determine whether what has been raised falls within the ambit of the procedure. If it does not, for example because what is alleged is not classified as research misconduct or it relates to research not conducted at the institution, then they will explain to the complainant why it cannot be investigated under this procedure and recommend an alternative course of action where appropriate.
  • Key to an investigation proceeding is that:
    • the matter relates specifically to the conduct of research;
    • the behaviour alleged falls under the definition of research misconduct contained with the procedure; and
    • the individual was either employed/a student/on an honorary or visiting contract at the institution, i.e., that the research was conducted under the auspices of the institution. If the matter relates to actions that took place elsewhere, it is not likely that the institution will be able to investigate.
  • If it does fall within the auspices of the procedure, then an initial assessment of the information available and investigation is carried out to determine whether there is sufficient evidence of research misconduct to warrant a full investigation or whether alternative action should be taken. Alternative action may be for example referral to another organisation, that the matter can be addressed by education or training, or that the matter should be dismissed. The person or people against whom the allegations have been made (typically known as the respondent) will be given the opportunity to respond to the concerns raised.
  • If the initial investigation shows that there is sufficient cause for concern, then a panel including academic members of staff from within the institution and external to it will be established and a full investigation will be carried out.
  • The panel will seek to determine whether there is evidence that research misconduct occurred, by whom and its level of intent and seriousness. It may also make recommendation on how to correct the record, for example if there have been publications that have been plagiarised from elsewhere or which include flawed, falsified, or fraudulent data. Alternatively, it may find that there is no substance to the allegations or evidence to support it, and that they were mistaken or malicious.
  • It will produce a report of its findings, that will be sent to the Named Person. The Named Person will follow up the report by referring an individual to the institutional disciplinary proceedings, seek to correct the published record of the research in question, informing any funders or other bodies that need to be informed. Where it has been found that there was no substance to the allegations, they may take action to ensure the reputation of the individual against whom the allegations are made is preserved.
  • In some cases, the individual against whom the allegations have been made will have the opportunity to appeal against the findings of the panel based on one or more grounds provided for appeal. In cases where the procedure permits this, the complainant can also appeal the findings. Where an appeal is possible, then a further process will take place, managed by someone other than the Named Person, to conduct a review or rehearing of the investigation. The outcome of this stage will be final.

Written by Nicola Sainsbury on behalf of UKRIO

Resources

Many universities have web pages on research integrity and misconduct, which provides information on what information and resources they have in place and where you should go if you would like advice.

  1. Concordat to Support Research Integrity. Universities UK, 2019. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/topics/research-and-innovation/concordat-support-research-integrity
  2. Misconduct in research. In the Code of Practice for Research, UKRIO. https://ukrio.org/publications/code-of-practice-for-research/3-0-standards-for-organisations-and-researchers/3-16-misconduct-in-research/
  3. National Center for Professional & Research Ethics, & Retraction Watch. (2018). Peer Review Form for Research Integrity Investigation Reports. https://ethicscenter.web.illinois.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-04-18-peer-review-v4c.pdf
  4. Misconduct & Misbehaviors. Embassy of Good Science. https://embassy.science/wiki-wiki/index.php/Special:BrowseData/Theme?_search_Theme_Type%5B0%5D=Misconduct+%26+Misbehaviors
  5. Russell Group Statement of Cooperation in respect of cross-institutional research misconduct allegations. Russell Group, 2018. https://russellgroup.ac.uk/media/5708/russell-group-research-integrity-forum-statement-of-cooperation-may-2018.pdf
  6. Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Research Projects: A Practical Guide. OECD Global Science Forum, 2009. https://www.oecd.org/science/inno/42770261.pdf