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Panel calls for national body to advise on research integrity

But expert panel recommends no major changes to Canada’s current system of enforcing integrity rules for federally funded research.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | OCT 25 2010

In an effort to discourage incidents of research misconduct, a panel of experts has recommended that the federal government create a new national agency, to be known as the Canadian Council for Research Integrity, to provide advice and guidance to universities and research hospitals on how to prevent such cases.

The agency, as proposed, would play mainly an educational and advisory role. It would provide confidential advice to researchers, institutions and funding agencies; gather and disseminate information and data; and develop and promote good educational practices aimed at bolstering research integrity.

“We think there is an urgent need for a new body that can concentrate solely on providing advice to individuals and institutions on research integrity,” said Paul Davenport, chair of the expert panel and former president of the University of Western Ontario.

The 14-member panel was set up in 2009 by the Council of Canadian Academies, an independent agency, at the request of Industry Canada, following reports of several high-profile cases of research misconduct. These included the case of Eric Poehlman, a medical researcher at Université de Montréal found guilty by U.S. authorities of falsifying and fabricating data published in journals and research applications while working in the United States, and that of Ranjit Chandra, a Memorial University science professor accused of falsifying data.

The panel released its report in late October. It recommended that the Canadian Council for Research Integrity, or CCRI, not be responsible for investigating allegations of research misconduct or levying sanctions against those who breach the rules. Those responsibilities would remain with the three major federal research granting councils and the universities. The report said the new agency must be non-threatening so that individuals and institutions will approach it willingly to ask questions and seek guidance.

Dr. Davenport said the panel discussed the division of responsibilities “at great length” and concluded that the best option was to separate the two. “It is difficult, I believe, for the body that is charged with setting the rules and enforcing them to be the same body that is involved in giving confidential advice on particular cases,” he explained.

No one knows how widespread research misconduct is in Canada. The federal granting agencies, known collectively as the Tri-Council, publish data on the number of allegations they receive and the cases they pursue. But, as the panel’s report notes, the problem is thought to be more widespread than these data indicate because the figures don’t cover research that is privately funded and research that falls outside the Tri-Council mandate. Also, some U.S. surveys, asking researchers if they’ve fabricated or falsified research data or witnessed others do so, suggest that scientific fraud may be more prevalent than published figures show.

But, said Dr. Davenport, “We don’t need exact statistics to know that every time there is a serious breach there is the threat that this behaviour will undermine the public’s confidence in both the output of research and in the need for funding it … This is a big, big issue for universities, whatever the frequency of misbehavior.”

The recommendation for a national agency isn’t new; previous committees and reports have called for Canada to establish an agency to promote research integrity, similar to those in several European countries, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S., the Office of Research Integrity is responsible for upholding laws that prohibit research misconduct and investigating allegations of fraud. Those prosecuted under the law can face steep penalties, including prison terms.

The expert panel rejected this approach, opting to maintain Canada’s existing system. “There’s no special law on research integrity in Canada, and we feel the system will work best if we keep it that way,” Dr. Davenport said.

The panel’s recommendations, if accepted, would require academic institutions to submit a regular report to CCRI about their efforts to promote research integrity. CCRI would be governed by a volunteer advisory board made up of representatives from government, academia, private-sector funders and the public. CCRI’s board would have authority to establish ad hoc and standing committees to deal with specific issues as they arise. The agency would be funded by the federal government through the granting councils.

Currently, the Tri-Council sets the regulations governing research integrity. Canadian universities whose researchers receive Tri-Council funds agree to abide by them. Universities are primarily responsible for investigating allegations of fraud, disciplining those guilty of breaching the rules and reporting those breaches to the Tri-Council. The panel said that the Tri-Council should continue to be responsible for setting the rules and working with the universities to ensure that they are upheld.

The panel concluded that the current system is working well, for the most part, but that it presents a number of challenges. For example, since responsibility for investigating allegations of misconduct rests primarily with an institution, that institution faces an inherent conflict of interest: if it exposes the wrongdoing , it damages its own reputation. And, when an institution wants to publicize a case, it can be hamstrung by privacy laws.

The report’s recommendations won’t solve all these problems, Dr. Davenport acknowledged. “We can manage them, but we can’t make them disappear.” But it’s a trade-off, he added: Researchers, institutions and public and private funding agencies need to discuss how best to balance Canadians’ growing demand for accountability with the increasingly stringent privacy laws governing society and public institutions.

“We think the best approach is to get the issue on the table and use the CCRI to encourage all actors to talk about it and see how we can deal with it.”

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