(Original Swedish post published 30 January.)
Today we have appointed a new Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Good Research Practice. Stefan Eriksson has long taught on and taken an active interest in issues of research ethics and will now assume a more prominent role in preventive efforts at the University. Good research demands good research practice. The University’s risk analysis has identified a loss of confidence in research as a significant risk. We must take responsibility ourselves, both for detecting and dealing with deficiencies and for preventive action in the sphere of quality and research ethics. We must persistently promote an internal culture that includes an ongoing discussion of research ethics issues. When something goes wrong, we must have a clear, legally certain system to manage complaints, both at university level and nationally. The establishment of a national authority by no means absolves the scholarly community or individual institutions of responsibility. On the contrary.
Since the Macchiarini case, higher education and research institutions around the country have experienced increased complaints of misconduct. To a great extent, the interest of society at large in research misconduct has been beneficial and has prompted more intensive internal discussions on research ethics at higher education institutions. The issue of confidence in research has also become a political issue and Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson recently announced plans for a new government authority to manage complaints of misconduct. The previous week, a sudden decision was announced authorising government research funding bodies to freeze grants during misconduct investigations. Here, however, it is important to consider the consequences. Research grants often support several researchers. This means there is a risk of affecting third parties and ultimately entire areas of research.
In the light of accumulated experience of cases of misconduct, it is clear that several areas need to be considered to achieve the result we want: to eliminate cheating in research, while respecting due process and without hurting innocent people. It is important that politicians, public authorities and research funding bodies also act responsibly. To be sure, dealing with suspicions of misconduct is a matter of protecting the credibility and integrity of research, but it must be possible to do this without wrecking research careers and, in the worst case, entire research fields. The consequences of decisions therefore require careful consideration. Here are some important issues to bear in mind:
- Investigate promptly. Currently, the process takes too long. It is unsatisfactory when an offence becomes time-barred because the investigation has taken too long. And it is not acceptable that an innocent person should be forced to endure prolonged exposure to suspicion from the community.
- Investigate carefully. This requires taking account of all the individuals involved in a joint project. Research is often a cooperative exercise conducted by a large or small group, with different individuals taking responsibility for different aspects. If all are tarred with the same brush when one has done wrong, the result is a work environment characterised by suspicion and control instead of trust and collaboration. In that kind of environment, creativity wanes.
- Reasonable consequences. The consequences must be reasonable based on what has happened, and must be decided by the right authority. The combined ‘penalties’ from disciplinary boards, research funding bodies, the scholarly community and the media may otherwise grow out of proportion to the fault committed. As mentioned above, the consequences for third parties of the government’s decision to allow research funding bodies to freeze grants during an investigation need to be studied.
- Consider degrees on the scale. The current system is a blunt instrument, it is a question of either/or, black or white. A careless unintentional mistake is regarded as misconduct, just like deliberate fabrication of false research results. In our opinion, the possibility of assessing degrees of seriousness should be discussed.
- Differentiate between misconduct and scholarly disputes. Being suspected of and investigated for misconduct is a great strain and often takes place in the full glare of publicity, since the media have quite reasonably shown great interest in these issues. But the open digital landscape can leave an individual defenceless, so that they risk having their name dragged through the mud before their guilt has been proved. It is important that accusations of misconduct do not become a substitute for thorough – and critical – scholarly discussion. Sometimes suspicions ultimately turn out to be a matter of scholarly disputes or, in the worst case, personal conflicts. If accusations of misconduct are used as a weapon in debate, we have taken a wrong turning. Then scholarly scrutiny and discussion turn into law, and then what becomes of science?