Advice for respondents
Information and resources for those who are subject to allegations of research misconduct.
It can be difficult and stressful to be accused of research misconduct or poor research practice. This guidance is aimed at those who are the respondent in matters raised, as it is helpful to be well-informed on what is involved in the process and of your rights under a standard research misconduct procedure.
What is the procedure followed?
All institutions in the UK conducting research and employing researchers are required under the Concordat to support Research Integrity to establish a procedure for the investigation of alleged research misconduct. The process is investigatory with the dual aims of establishing whether misconduct in research took place and who was responsible, and for ensuring that the research record is corrected if that is needed. It is not a disciplinary procedure, though that can follow if an individual or group is found to have committed research misconduct.
What does it cover?
The procedure is designed to be used when a concern is raised about the conduct of research under the auspices of the university. Different procedures may define research misconduct differently, but a helpful definition of research misconduct can be found in the concordat to support research integrity referenced above and is summarised in the UKRIO short guide on research misconduct, which can be found here.
Research misconduct does not include honest errors or differences of opinion over methodology. Sloppy/questionable research practices are also not normally included unless they prove to be deliberate and systematic over an extended period of time, in which case they could be considered reckless and intentional.
Who does it cover?
Procedures will vary, but in general they will cover employees of the institution, as well as visiting staff and contractors, ie anyone conducting research under the auspices of the institution. Some procedures will include research students, others will have separate processes for them. Normally only research conducted whilst at the institution can be investigated. If the concerns raised relate to activity at a former institution, that institution would normally need to investigate the matter raised.
What procedure will be followed?
Research misconduct procedures are not normally part of an institution’s disciplinary process. An individual who is the subject of a research misconduct procedure is presumed innocent in any investigation until the outcome is known.
Procedures are normally divided into two stages, in initial investigation stage, often carried out by a individual tasked to determine if there is a case to answer and a full investigation stage, which will normally involve a panel.
What should I do if I am notified that I am the subject/respondent in a matter raised?
- Ensure that you are provided with a copy of the procedure and familiarise yourself with the process to be followed and timescales. It is important to read the procedure that is being used by the institution in full and ensure they operate fully in accordance with their procedure.
- Seek advice from any professional association, trade union representatives or other expert advice from within or outside the institution. UKRIO is able to provide confidential advice to respondents, please see https://ukrio.org/get-advice-from-ukrio/. You will be required to keep the matter confidential, but that does not preclude you from seeking advice;
- Look after your wellbeing/mental health and seek welfare or other support if you need to. Such matters can be difficult and it is important to ensure you look after yourself. Some institutions will have provision for this in their procedure.
- The matter should be investigated in a timely manner, and you should receive regular updates on the progress of the investigation. If you do not hear anything for some time, feel free to approach the person responsible for the investigation (often known as the Named Person) or department managing the investigation to ask for a progress report;
- At the relevant point within the investigation, you should be provided with an opportunity to review the concerns raised and provide a response. This may take the form of in interview or a request for written information. If the matter reaches the formal investigation stage, the panel will want to interview you.
- If you are invited to meetings or interviews as part of the procedure, you will normally be entitled to bring a friend or colleague along. How that works will depend on the procedure, so you should ensure you are familiar with what it says and what is permitted.
- You are entitled to a fair and impartial investigation. Some procedures will provide you as the respondent with an opportunity to comment on the composition of any panel appointed to investigate a matter – this is to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest. You will not normally have the right of veto but can raise any connections or potential conflicts of interest that may impact on the impartiality of any investigation.
What are my responsibilities?
As the respondent in a matter being investigated by your employer in good faith following concerns raised, you also have responsibilities:
- To co-operate with those running the investigation, including responding in a timely and constructive way to requests for information.
- To keep the investigation and any matter being investigated confidential. As noted above, this should not preclude you from seeking advice.
- To provide information and respond to requests as objectively and openly as possible. It is helpful to avoid emotional language and keep calm, even if this is difficult. If you consider that the individual who has raised the matter has not done so in good faith, then you are entitled to highlight that as part of the investigation, but slanging matches and angry words do not help the institution reach the truth. The institution has a responsibility to remain impartial, and this includes listening and responding to the person who has raised the matter, as well as to you.
- You must not pursue or victimise the individual raising the matter with the institution. Anyone is permitted to raise a matter in good faith under whistleblowing law and any attempt to contact them yourself or to make their lives difficult will not be seen in a good light.
- Also, if you consider that the person raising the matter has committed research misconduct, you are entitled to raise that. You should however think carefully about counter allegations – it can look like sour grapes or attempt to deflect. Why didn’t you raise the matter before? Normally if a counter-allegation is raised, this will be investigated separately and after the matter raised against you has been investigated.
What are the potential outcomes?
There are normally three potential outcomes to a full investigation – that the matter is unfounded, upheld or partially upheld. Findings made be based on balance of probabilities. Should the outcome of an investigation determine that misconduct in research has occurred, disciplinary action may follow.
Can I appeal?
If you consider that the outcome is not right or that due process was not followed, there may be an opportunity to appeal.
Under the Concordat to support Research Integrity, institutions are required to have in place processes for appeal. The avenues available will vary at different stages of the process and often formal appeals are not available at early stages in a procedure. Sometimes at the screening stage, it is possible to ask the panel to reconsider, or to correct errors of fact, so it is possible to raise concerns but using the processes available.
If there are no options available under the procedure or you have exhausted them, then the options available are limited but it is possible to write to the named person, setting out the concerns clearly and objectively and asking to be reconsidered in this light. It is also possible to raise to the next level up within the organisation or with a senior individual with responsibility for research governance (this might be the Director of Research, or the Vice-Principal for Research, depending on the roles within the institution). It is important to raise concrete concerns based on information and evidence, not simply that you do not agree with the outcome.
Universities will normally have a complaints or grievance procedure, so it will be worth exploring those to see if that avenue is open (this will only normally be available to current staff and students). Different procedures and options will be available to staff and students. If the concerns relate to matters other than research conduct directly, such as bullying or harassment, then it may also be possible to raise matters under those.
What other avenues are available?
If the research that was the subject of the investigation was funded, it is possible to raise a concern with the funder (although they will often refer back to the employer). Also if it was published, it could be raised with the publisher, although again they will often expect the employer to investigate.
Students may have the option to complain to the Office for Students (England) and the Public Services Ombudsman (Scotland) when they have exhausted all avenues with their institution. These bodies will only seek to determine whether the university followed due process in a timely manner. They will not adjudicate on the matter itself.
There is no external body to adjudicate for matters raised by staff or external individuals.
Written by Nicola Sainsbury, Research Integrity Manager, UKRIO