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Many universities failing to report misconduct cases

Only a small number of universities publish reports on their research misconduct investigations, despite a condition from funders that they do so.

Of 88 universities investigated by the UK Research Integrity Office in March and April, only 12 reports were found to be publicly available, in line with a recommendation in the UK’s concordat to support research integrity. The results of this survey were presented to a UKRIO conference in London on 13 May.

The concordat was published by the vice-chancellors group Universities UK in 2012. Compliance was made a condition of research funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England from 2013-14. HEFCE recognised that compliance may take some time and so would require only an assurance that universities were seeking to comply for 2013-14.

“The implication is that for 2014-15 HEFCE will have expected you to comply with the concordat,” said Elizabeth Wager, a publications consultant and the UKRIO advisory board member who conducted the compliance investigation. “I think that … is pretty clear.”

The concordat, signed by the major public funding bodies, the Wellcome Trust and Universities UK, says that employers of researchers should produce an annual statement on any formal investigations of research misconduct and that “this statement should be made publicly available”.

Wager surveyed the 44 universities that subscribe to UKRIO in March 2015 to find out how many had published an annual statement on 2013-14 and what these statements included. A total of 28 universities responded, of which 18 had not published their reports. Ten had published a statement, but one of these required a login and was not publicly available. Of the 10, only eight included cases of misconduct. Wager also surveyed a random sample of 44 other universities in April 2015, searching manually on their websites for their statements. She found three,  only one of which reported a case.

So of the 13 universities publishing a report, four had reported no formal investigations. One senior researcher speaking at the UKRIO conference said that she wouldn’t trust a job offer from a university that had no published misconduct investigations.

Wager said the different names that universities give to their misconduct statements make them hard to find. The reports often carried vague names such as “Report to council from UREC [University Research Ethics Committee]” and “Annual statement to council”.

“What you call it sounds like a trivial issue but when you’re using Google to find these things it makes a big difference,” Wager told the UKRIO conference. “If you’ve published it and your university is doing the right thing it would be a shame if nobody could find your beautifully crafted report.”

A delegate from a small university with little research activity said her colleagues were under the impression that the statement did not need to be published. A UUK spokesman said that the creators of the concordat did not want to mandate publication, so they had said it “should” be published. According to one source, HEFCE is not yet checking that universities have published their reports.

Other universities have decided to publish their statements. “It was our interpretation of the concordat that we should publish it and we did,” says Peter Hedges, head of the research office at the University of Cambridge, which has recently set up a webpage dedicated to research integrity. “We made it clear throughout the process to approve the statement within Cambridge that it was intended that it would be published and I don’t believe that this was a significant issue for us. Personally, I don’t see any major reason why annual statements should not be published as the concordat suggests."

Wager’s survey also found variation between the reports. They varied in length from one page to 13 pages, with a median of 11. The types of investigation may involve plagiarism, falsification, authorship, fabrication or breaches of confidentiality.