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Canadian research misconduct to be studied by Health Canada-led committee

New study for Canadian Research Integrity Committee compares policies and incidence at home with eight other countries

BY NICK TAYLOR-VAISEY | DEC 15 2008

Very little is known about the frequency and scope of research misconduct at Canadian universities, and the time has come for that to change, say several groups heavily invested in the country’s postsecondary research community.

The Canadian Research Integrity Committee – a group of 14 postsecondary stakeholders including the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada that was pulled together by Health Canada in early 2007 – has brought on a seasoned consultant to study existing policies both in Canada and around the world.

Tijs Creutzberg was hired by CRIC to better define research integrity, determine the magnitude of research misconduct in Canada, and provide options to the community that will help combat the problem when it happens.

Dr. Creutzberg and his six-member team will interview about 100 people in Canada and abroad. The team’s mandate isn’t limited to the university research community.

“This [project] requires extensive data collection across a number of institutions and across all sectors of the economy and the research system, so it requires experience with the universities, the private sector, government and international organizations as well,” he said.

A representative sample of universities, including those that undertake 90 percent of university research in Canada, will be contacted, added John Dingwall, senior policy analyst at AUCC. Eight countries that are politically and culturally similar to Canada or are major players in global research will also be analyzed: the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Japan.

These countries treat research integrity in a variety of ways. Some frameworks are managed under a federal system similar to the Canadian model, but others take a different view of dealing with research misconduct.

Dr. Dingwall was careful to not pre-select a preferred outcome for the study, as far as policy options are concerned. “We want to avoid favouring any options in advance. We just want to look at the scope of the problem and the range of the options and then the pros and cons for each,” he said.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, also reacted cautiously. “To have a productive discussion about where we want to go, there has to be a greater awareness of what the options are,” he said, adding that he hoped this study will be “the start of a broad national consultation” to try to build a consensus on how to proceed.

Dr. Turk did mention that Norway and Denmark tend to take a more holistic and preventative approach to research integrity, and that was certainly worth looking at.

Both CAUT and the Canadian Federation of Students’ graduate caucus, in the recent past, have advocated for whistleblower protection for graduate students who witness alleged misconduct.

The kind of study that Dr. Creutzberg’s team will undertake is fairly new to the research community in Canada. A narrower report on research misconduct was completed in 2006 by Toronto-based medical doctor Paul Pencharz in the aftermath of the Ranjit Chandra case at Memorial University. Dr. Chandra, a professor at Memorial, was accused of falsifying data for a 2001 scientific article on how vitamins benefit seniors.

Dr. Dingwall of AUCC emphasized the large scope of the new study and said, “You don’t want to make general policy in response to particular cases, to a subset of particular cases.”

Health Canada, while it didn’t agree to an interview, said in an e-mail that the government “is committed to ensuring that the research funding it provides is spent appropriately. The results of this study will help CRIC assess what steps may be taken to strengthen research integrity in Canada.”

The Creutzberg report is due by early April 2009.

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