Institutional investigations are a maze of poor communication and unclear guidance, national committee says
Research integrity investigations at Australian institutions are being affected by poor communication, delays and failure to follow internal policies, according to the most recent report of the Australian Research Integrity Committee.
The committee’s 2022-23 report reveals that two Australian institutions were told to redo their investigation of allegations of integrity breaches, while two were told to improve their processes “for managing and investigating potential breaches” of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research. The report did not clarify whether the same institutions were involved.
Its “key lessons” for the year included: a need for institutions to give clear guidance on authorship rules; a need to be more timely in investigating integrity complaints; a warning to institutions to treat complainants fairly, even if they were seen as “difficult”; and a need to communicate better, including better explanations of processes and reasons.
The committee is run jointly by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council. It reviews complaints about procedural fairness and process in research institutions’ internal investigations. Its reports back to institutions on reviews are confidential, so the names of the institutions involved were not released.
Anonymised case studies showed that some institutions had initially failed to give the committee all the information it needed to review integrity investigations. One university only provided an expert letter of “one paragraph long” to back up its findings that a researcher had not engaged in plagiarism of another’s work. It later provided the committee with a full report but was still found to have breached procedural fairness by not giving the complainant enough information.
The committee’s report noted that “to remain eligible for funding by the Australian Research Council, it is a requirement that institutions provide information to the committee when requested”. Similar rules are in place regarding the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The committee received 12 new review requests in 2022-23, but some were not “accepted” and others are still being considered. Only one was found to have shown “no procedural concerns”.
The committee has commissioned an independent review of its own operations by the consultancy KPMG and promised that the findings would be released this year.