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Role of research integrity advisers poorly understood, study finds


Survey of integrity advisers at Australian institutions highlights need for more internal support and advertising

Researchers at Australian universities have a low awareness of the research integrity advice available to them, a national study has found.

The study, published in the journal Accountability in Research on 27 July, found that despite trained advisers being mandatory at all research institutions, these advisers generally felt their role was not well understood.

Lead author Adrian Barnett of Queensland University of Technology has published several papers on the topic of research integrity. He and his co-authors contacted just over 700 advisers at 99 institutions in early 2023, receiving just under 200 responses.

“The main desired changes were for greater advertising of their role and a desire to promote good practice rather than just supporting potential issues,” the paper said. 

It found that “most advisers had a very light workload, with a median of just 0.5 days [spent on advice] per month”, while “13 per cent of advisers had not received any training” and some “only discovered they were an adviser after our approach”.

“Some advisers need better institutional support in terms of training and raising awareness,” it said.

Some respondents told the study that there was confusion about whether their role was advising on integrity or administering ethics. One said their role was merely “nominal”, while another said that “we have consistently been told that there will be training but that has not materialised”.

Advice given tended to be mainly about authorship, collaboration, “questionable research practices”, supervision issues and data management and integrity. Very few researchers went to the advisers with questions about sexual harassment or recognition of Indigenous Australians in their work.

Research institutions must have trained advisers under the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, but two institutions did not have anyone filling the role.

QIMR Berghofer integrity reforms

In May, Queensland’s QIMR Berghofer said that it “accepted institutional responsibility” for failings in its research integrity system.

The leading medical research institute had commissioned an independent review of its internal processes after allegations of research misconduct against one of its top researchers.

Arun Sharma, chair of the institute’s council, issued an apology and said that “significant reform” had begun “as soon as we became aware of the allegations”.

QIMR Berghofer referred the allegations to corruption authorities, although there has been no formal finding on the matter. It also returned millions of dollars in grant funding.

The review, by former South Australian corruption commissioner Bruce Lander, found structural barriers to the misconduct being uncovered and said that “some whistleblowers had not been afforded appropriate care, respect or credibility when they had tried to raise their concerns”, according to the institute’s statement.

However, the review praised the internal reforms, and QIMR Berghofer said it was implementing all 25 recommendations.