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Tri-council changes policy to curtail incidents of academic fraud

Release of new rules catches universities by surprise.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | NOV 30 2011

The federal research granting agencies introduced new rules to clamp down on incidents of scientific fraud and set up an advisory panel in the area of research conduct. In a joint statement issued Nov. 17, the three major granting councils said they will require all researchers who apply for federal funding to complete a consent form allowing the agencies to publicly disclose researchers’ names should they commit “serious breaches” of agency policies. If applicants refuse to sign the form, their funding request will be denied.

The new measures also allow the councils to disclose the nature of the breach, the name of the institution where the researcher was employed at the time the misconduct occurred and the name of the institution where the researcher is currently employed. Serious breaches would include, among other things, deliberate misuse of research funds for personal benefit, knowingly publishing research results based on fabricated data, and obtaining funds by misrepresenting credentials or qualifications.

“In determining whether a breach is serious, the agency will consider the extent to which the breach jeopardizes the safety of the public or would bring the conduct of research into disrepute,” the statement said.

The tri-council will consider the level of experience of the researcher, whether there is a pattern of previous breaches and other factors in making its decision. The tri-council is comprised of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

In early December, the tri-council also established the Advisory Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research. Its role is to “ensure a coherent and uniform approach to promoting the responsible conduct of research and addressing allegations of breaches of agency policies.” The eight-member panel is chaired by Denise Alcock, a consultant for health services research and a former dean of health sciences at the University of Ottawa. Other members are Eddy Campbell, president of the University of New Brunswick, Joanne Keselman, provost at the University of Manitoba, Susan Marlin, associate vice-principal, research, at Queen’s University, Martin Letendre, director of ethics and legal affairs for Ethica Clinical Research Inc., Suromitra Sanatani, a Victoria, B.C. lawyer, and Sumedha Chandana Wira-singhe, an engineering professor at the University of Calgary.

When the initial announcement was made by the tri-council, the Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear told the House of Commons of the policy change during Question Period. “While misconduct in research is very rare,” he said, “it is import to make sure the integrity of Canadian research and Canadian researchers is protected, and we are doing just that.”

Those who are found to have committed a serious breach will have their names published on the website of the relevant granting agency. The new measures also apply to students seeking tri-council support.

The timing of the announcement caught universities by surprise. Martha Crago, vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University, said universities are prohibited by privacy laws from publicly disclosing the names of researchers who commit fraud and can only do so if a case goes to court. “People do slip out of one university and into another one without being detected,” she said. “I find that very frustrating.” She said the new measures should help prevent this but added that it isn’t clear how the rules will square against existing privacy laws. Dr. Crago was a member of a panel of experts created by the Council of Canadian Academies to look into research integrity.

Cases of scientific fraud are rare in Canada, according to the tri-council. But, the expert panel’s report, released in 2010, noted that the problem is likely more widespread than tri-council data indicate because the figures don’t cover privately funded research or research that falls outside its mandate. The new measures apply only to research funded by the granting councils.

There have been several high-profile cases of academic misconduct in Canada. Eric Poehlman, a researcher at Université de Montréal, pleaded guilty in 2005 of falsifying and fabricating data while working in the United States. Ranjit Chandra, a Memorial University professor, retired in 2002 after he was accused of falsifying data.

Paul Pencharz, a researcher at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said he supports the creation of a federal agency charged with upholding research integrity similar to those in several European countries.

“There’s a real issue of conflict of interest in a university investigating its own people,” said Dr. Pencharz, who was the expert tasked with conducting a review of Memorial’s handling of the Chandra affair.

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