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No name, no shame

By in News
James Turk
In the wake of a scathing editorial in one of the world’s leading science journals, Canadian handling of research misconduct has been called into question.

The journal Nature criticized the Natural Sciences and Energy Research Council of Canada for refusing to publicly identify researchers found guilty of misconduct in its Sept. 28 issue. James Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers says his organization agrees with Nature and advocates a change.

“Research misconduct” includes a variety of inappropriate actions, from plagiarism to falsification of data and beyond.

According to Turk, the problems merely start with what Nature discussed, and multiply from there.

“The whole system is rather badly flawed,” Turk said. “Well-intended, but badly flawed.”

NSERC is one of three main granting councils in Canada that allot funding for research, along with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Despite the fact that these three organizations hold the purse strings for research and have a policy on research misconduct, any investigation into misconduct is conducted by the university that researcher works for. There is no binding national policy on misconduct investigations, nor are there any guidelines schools must follow, save whatever they come up with themselves.

“We have this totally decentralized system,” Turk explained. “If I’m a researcher and I’m accused of misconduct, how it would get treated in one university could be entirely different from how it would be treated in another university.

“There’s no effective oversight or statutory authority for oversight on the part of the granting councils.”

Turk says there are two primary reasons NSERC’s refusal to publish the identities of those found guilty of misconduct is wrongheaded. One is that it can lead to public mistrust of universities, a dangerous trend for institutions like universities that rely on the public for funding. The other reason is that if other researchers are unaware of misconduct in their community, the offending work might be used to back up other work, propagating results that may have been falsified or plagiarized.

“When accusations are made,” Turk said, “you want to maintain confidentiality, because it could destroy somebody’s career if allegations get out…. But when there’s a proper, fair investigation and judgment that indeed there has been serious research misconduct, then I think it looks very bad in the eyes of the public to say, ‘Well, we can’t tell you who it is or anything about it.’ That just causes public distrust, which will really backfire on the academic world.”

Turk added that when everyone knows a researcher’s identity will not be made public, whistleblowers can grow frustrated and lean toward outing someone publicly rather than watching the investigation and punishment occur behind closed doors.

NSERC denied requests for an interview and sent the following comment by email: “NSERC has zero tolerance for research misconduct and for any misuse of taxpayers’ dollars. We are working with universities to strengthen our policies on research integrity. Cases of scientific misconduct are extremely rare in Canada.”

In the increasingly competitive world of post-secondary education, where schools compete for students, funding and prestige, and a drop in one can lead to a decrease in the others, there can be immense pressure to avoid the kind of black eye that research misconduct inevitably represents.

The University of Alberta hopes to be in the top 20 world universities by 2020; the University of Calgary recently made public its plan to be one of Canada’s top five research schools by 2016, in time for its 50th anniversary; the University of Ottawa recently cracked the top 200 universities in the world, and is looking at an even higher standing.

“Universities are in a very competitive mood these days,” Turk said. However, along with this competitive mood has come a desire to sweep certain unpleasant incidents under the rug.

One of the most dramatic examples of this happened at Memorial University of Newfoundland several years ago. Ranjit Chandra, a member of the faculty of medicine, submitted a paper to the British Medical Journal claiming to have patented a multivitamin formula capable of reversing memory loss in seniors. After the BMJ’s statistical expert determined that the results of Chandra’s study were impossible, MUN was asked to investigate the case.

When MUN asked Chandra to produce his data, he refused. Chandra resigned in 2002, but his fraudulent paper had already been published in the Sept. 2001 issue of Nutrition. Memorial did not pursue its investigation after Chandra resigned.

“There were accusations that the university had dragged its feet in investigating,” Turk said of the case. “One way to deal with misconduct is to let the person resign, and then nothing comes out.”

While this policy might suit schools looking to maintain a spotless reputation, it hardly furthers the field of scientific research.

According to Turk, “We need a consistent set of expectations of what constitutes research integrity. Those expectations should apply to academic researchers, to government researchers, to researchers in private industry. And when there are allegations of misconduct, there should be a set of procedures that are followed to ensure fairness to the accused, and for the interests of the public.”

Photo: Pat McGrath

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