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Ingredients for a genuine European Research Area

The European Research Area, an amorphous concept, is again being refined by research commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn. Somewhat fancifully, “implementation” is being envisaged for 2014.

Language barriers and the difficulties of transferring pensions and other benefits between different European nations mean that the ERA will take longer than that to complete. But there are also aspects of the governance of research itself that currently divide, rather than unite, European nations. Two examples highlighted in our coverage this week are the European Commission’s endorsement of open-access publishing and Europe’s lack of infrastructure to deal with research misconduct. In both cases, a common approach between nations has the potential to help implement a genuine research area, and also to directly strengthen the research systems of member states.

Open-access publishing has developed over the past decade into a formidable grass-roots movement among researchers. Paradoxically, however, many researchers are unsure about how to use open access. Many secretly fear that open-access journals are less valued, in terms of both their own career prospects and those of their students, than traditional publications. Most researchers would nonetheless agree emphatically with the bottom line, as expressed by digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes, that “taxpayers should not have to pay twice for scientific research”.

Getting to that point from where we are now may prove to be more complex than the Commission has acknowledged in its new open-access policy. However, the arrival of the policy is welcome—and should now trigger action by the large number of EU member states whose national research policies have yet to take account of the open-access movement.

The governance of good research conduct is another sphere in which European nations could benefit from adhering to common practices. As the European Science Foundation has noted, relatively few countries have thus far implemented effective systems to police research conduct. Such systems are desirable, because institutions often struggle to investigate and sanction misconduct, without external advice and support.

Research misconduct has the potential to damage greatly public faith in the reliability of research. The European Science Foundation, by setting out appropriate guidelines on responding to allegations of misconduct in its code of conduct for research integrity, makes it easier for governments or national research agencies to put appropriate policies in place.

In both of these cases, pan-European initiatives can serve to foster better national policies. The ESF’s code of conduct and the Commission’s open-access policy may not make a huge difference—but they do provide a lead for member states to follow.

Neither the Commission nor anyone else is in a position to force national governments or national research agencies to adopt particular policies. Something as unassuming as an intelligent document can, however, provide a carrot to gently induce member states to improve their own research governance. If they do that, national research systems will become stronger themselves, as well as stronger parties to the ERA.