Quarter of universities not reporting on potential malpractice

12 July 2018

The Science and Technology Committee report looks at what is known about problems arising from errors, questionable practices, and fraud in research, and what can be done to ensure that problems are handled appropriately.

As part of its inquiry, the Committee wrote to 136 universities to ask them whether they publish information on the number of misconduct investigations undertaken each year.

The Committee’s report found that:

  • Despite a commitment in the 2012 Concordat to Support Research Integrity, a quarter of universities are not producing an annual report on research integrity.
  • This lack of consistent transparency in reporting data on the number of misconduct investigations, and inconsistency in the way the information is recorded, means it is difficult to calculate the scale of research misconduct in the UK.
  • While compliance with Concordat is technically a prerequisite for receiving research and higher education council funding, non-compliance has not led to any funding actions against institutions.
  • There has been a lack of co-ordinated leadership in implementing the Concordat’s recommendations in universities.

Chair's comments

Norman Lamb, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

“Research can help tackle some of the world’s great challenges including as disease, climate change and global inequality. The UK is a world leader in research, and our universities are at the forefront of the many of the world’s great scientific breakthroughs. The importance of public confidence in research can’t be overstated.

“While most universities publish an annual report on research integrity, six years from signing a Concordat which recommends doing so it is not yet consistent across the sector. It’s not a good look for the research community to be dragging its heels on this, particularly given research fraud can quite literally become a matter of life and death.

We need an approach to transparency which recognises that error, poor uses of statistics and even fraud are possible in any human endeavour, and a clear demonstration that universities look for problems and tackle them when they arise.”

Due to the potential weaknesses in the UK’s approach to research integrity, the Committee is recommending that:

  • A tightened Concordat on Research Integrity should be produced, with a timetabled roadmap to 100% compliance.
  • The Government should establish a national Research Integrity Committee to provide a means of verifying that university investigations into research misconduct are handled appropriately. The primary responsibility for investigating misconduct should remain with the employer, but the new committee would improve confidence in the existing system of self-regulation and would be alert to the potential conflict of interest of universities 'self-policing' research misconduct.
  • The new committee should publish an annual report on the state of research integrity in the UK.

Norman Lamb MP, Chair, said:

“Establishing a new national Research Integrity Committee is crucial to championing integrity in the sector and driving the future implementation of a tightened Research Integrity Concordat.

“Universities should view transparency and increased reporting of misconduct as a positive sign that wrongdoing is being spotted and taken seriously, rather than as a threat to the university’s reputation. Failing to address this will fuel suspicions that allegations are swept under the carpet.

“Our evidence made clear that there is no appetite for heavy-handed Government regulation of this. Universities are rightly proud of their independence. There needs to be a way of verifying that universities are following their own procedures and investigating misconduct properly. Unless we address this there is a risk that there could be a knee-jerk reaction towards inappropriate regulation in response to the next big research misconduct scandal.”

Further information

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