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Europe’s lack of data and governance leave door open to misconduct, says ESF

Only five out of fifteen European countries surveyed by the European Science Foundation have a national body that deals with research misconduct, according to data seen by Research Europe.

Croatia, Denmark, Norway, the UK and Poland have a national institution that governs research integrity, while Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden have institution-specific offices with national oversight. But many big research players such as Germany, France and Spain leave institutions to fend for themselves when dealing with research misconduct cases.

The data are part of a research project on how European countries deal with research misconduct, which is being undertaken by the ESF, a Strasbourg-based organisation that supports strategic planning among Europe’s science institutions. Having published the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in March 2011, the ESF is now gathering information on how countries are implementing the code.

“We only know of some specific examples, for example Luxembourg, which references our code in its research contracts,” says Laura Marin, a science officer at the ESF who worked on developing the code. “Other members have developed their own code based on ours, for example Spain’s research council and the UK.”

Europe’s general lack of infrastructure to deal with research misconduct makes it difficult for codes such as the ESF’s to be implemented across borders, says Marin. This in turn affects research collaboration and quality, she warns.

The ESF’s code separates research misconduct into five categories: falsification; fabrication; plagiarism; ethical problems; and minor misdemeanours, such as bad data storage. Marin says that most research misconduct incidents in Europe are in the minor falsification group. “This is a grey area, and it is difficult to define,” she says. “So many people who do it are not aware of it.”

Marin says that increased transparency, better detection software for plagiarism and more media scrutiny could help combat this issue. “As the system is getting more transparent, it’s getting more dangerous for fakers,” she says.

Research by ecologist Daniele Fanelli at the University of Edinburgh has shown that up to 2 per cent of researchers admit to fabricating or falsifying data.