New US Report Calls for Scientific Integrity Panel

April 12, 2017

In the first comprehensive update since 1992 to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine's Responsible Science report, members of a new committee have drafted guidance on protecting scientific integrity and have recommended creating a new advisory panel to help oversee it. The new report, introduced in a webcast Tuesday, was necessary, said Robert M. Nerem, PhD, chairman of the academies' Committee on Responsible Science, partly because in 25 years, technology has involved both fraud and errors, and through technology, the detection of both is more possible. Other factors driving the update were the increase in the globalization of research, collaboration across disciplines, the increase in publishing competition, and the threat of reduction in federal funding for science.

Central to the updated report is the need to establish an independent, nonprofit research integrity advisory board (RIAB) that is supported by dues-paying members, Dr Nerem said.

"Today, there is no organization with a mandate in terms of fostering research integrity that cuts across the disciplines and sectors," he said. The issues presented in this report should not be addressed only every couple of decades, he says, but they should be part of an ongoing discussion.

The board would represent a proactive approach rather than the imposing of more rules and penalties, Dr Nerem said. Its scope should cover all factions of the research process. The RIAB would also be a forum for sharing knowledge and expertise.

"We don't think more regulations is the way to in any way foster research integrity," he said.

This committee was formed in 2012 and immediately broadened the scope beyond individual researchers to include research institutions, journals, societies, and sponsors.

The committee endorsed the definition of research misconduct as falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism, Dr Nerem explained, but "we also wanted to put a focus on detrimental research practices," including renaming many of the "questionable research practices" in the 1992 report as "detrimental research practices." Such practices include using statistics in a way that falls just short of falsification and failing to keep data.

In the report, the committee called for more data. "We look at science as data driven, but when it comes to issues of research misconduct and detrimental research practices, there really are not data that one can rely on," Dr Nerem said.

As a result, there are no statistics as to the incidence of misconduct, though media reports and attention have increased.

The committee also called for the following:

  • Improved and updated policies and practices for all participants;

  • Protection for good-faith whistleblowers;

  • A framework for authorship standards. Authorship should be based on significant intellectual contributions. All authors should approve the final manuscript;

  • Assurance from research sponsors and journals that published information is sufficient to reproduce results, and data should be provided at the time of publication;

  • Commitment of sponsors to support long-term storage and access to data, including computational code;

  • Disclosure of all statistical tests and negative results.

New Thinking, Not New Funds

Dr Nerem urged rethinking of education regarding the responsible conduct of research (RCR). He notes that in the United States, virtually all trainees, as well as PhDs and the postdoctoral researchers, receive some RCR education, but faculty and principal investigators should be included as well.

Committee member and presenter Brian C. Martinson, PhD, senior research investigator with HealthPartners Research Foundation in Bloomington, Minnesota, said research integrity requires more than just an absence of intentional deceit and fraud but should include the identification underlying behaviors.

"These may be behaviors that people are engaging in because they find themselves under pressure and they cut corners — not necessarily out of avarice, possibly out of fear of losing their standing," he said.

The guidance the committee is proposing involves not just responding to behaviors once they're discovered but averting them, Dr Martinson said.

In response to a question about resources needed to accomplish the proposals, Dr Nerem said these changes focus on better education rather than measures requiring new funds.

One of the advantages of the RIAB would be to facilitate a discussion of better ways of conducting RCR, he said.

"I really don't think it's going to take more resources. I think it's just going to take a change in thinking and a change in culture and a change in this kind of education being a priority for an institution," he said.

The study was sponsored by the US Geological Survey of the US Department of the Interior, the Office of Research Integrity of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Society for Neuroscience, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

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