The road to responsible research

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18 oktober 2012 | It’s just as in real life: mentoring and educating scientists about ethical behaviour is ultimately more important than punishing the offenders. In a new report, two global academic networks stress daily-life-values like honesty and fairness.

The reportis the first product of a common InterAcademyCouncil (IAC) and IAP (Global network of science academies)project on scientific integrity, initiated in response to severalmajor trends reshaping the research enterprise, including theincreasingly global and interdisciplinary nature of science, itsheightened role in policy debates, and the continued emergence ofhigh-profile cases of irresponsible research behavior in manycountries.

The world’s toughest problems

“Humanity has placed its trust in science to solve many of theworld’s toughest problems, and researchers must preserve that trustby working ethically and responsibly,” said Indira Nath, co-chairof the authoring committee and emeritus professor at the NationalInstitute of Pathology, New Delhi, India. “All researchers have anobligation to act in accord with the values and principles ofresearch integrity.”

The committee stressed that responsible conduct allows theself-correcting nature of research to operate effectively andaccelerates the advance of knowledge. The committee also emphasizedthat while procedures and institutions to effectively investigateand punish irresponsible research are needed, mentoring andeducation efforts aimed at preventing irresponsible conduct areultimately more important.

Incidence is likely to rise

“Countries define and deal with irresponsible research practicesin different ways, and some aspects of how research is conductedalso vary widely among disciplines, countries, and cultures,” saidErnst-Ludwig Winnacker, committee co-chair and secretary general ofthe Human Frontier Science  program, Strasbourg, France.”Nevertheless, global standards of behavior reflecting theuniversal values of research are not only possible, butnecessary.”

The committee said that it is not currently possible toauthoritatively estimate how often irresponsible research practicesoccur, but it also noted that the incidence of irresponsibleconduct is likely to rise with the growing amount of research beingundertaken. More researchers are working worldwide than everbefore, and global R&D expenditures almost doubled to $1.3trillion (U.S. dollars) between 1996 and 2009, reinforcing the needfor new guidance.

Shared scientific values are critical

“With the growth of the research enterprise throughout the worldand increasing multi-national research teams, this important reportcan serve as a catalyst for developing international consensus onresponsible scientific conduct,” said IAC Co-Chair RobbertDijkgraaf, director, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NewJersey, U.S., and former president, Royal Netherlands Academy ofSciences.

The new report identifies fundamental values and principles thatresearchers should incorporate into every part of the process, fromdeveloping a research plan to reporting results and communicatingwith policymakers and the public. The principles identified buildupon efforts of several organizations and conferences that havefocused on conducting research responsibly. “As the worldwideresearch enterprise will have enormous economic and social impact,shared scientific core values are critical for public confidence inscience,” added IAC Co-Chair Lu Yongxiang, vice president, StandingCommittee of the National People’s Congress, China, and formerpresident, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The danger of data driven research

The report’s recommendations address several trends in researchthat are raising issues about proper conduct. For example, newtechnologies that enable more data- driven approaches to researchhave led to questions about how to allocate credit or share dataproperly. And the increasing globalization of research raisesconcerns about ensuring that all students and researchers in acollaborative project have shared values and common training.

All research fields need globally common and regularly updatedmechanisms to examine these issues and arrive at collectivejudgments about how best to handle them. In particular, potentialproblems that arise from international research collaborations,like intellectual property issues, need to be addressedbeforehand.


Many kinds of irresponsible and undesirable practices areassociated with publication of research results such as claiming orgranting undeserved authorship or duplicating publication ofmaterial that readers expect to be original, a practice sometimesreferred to as self-plagiarism. Both journals and authors shouldguard against this and refrain from citations designed only toboost a journal’s impact factor, the report says.

Journals have a special responsibility to protect researchintegrity and should not only issue corrections or retractions whenthey publish fraudulent papers, but also take steps to ensure thatthe papers do not continue to be cited. In addition, journalsshould use technological means, such as software that detectsplagiarism, to maintain integrity.

Full disclosure of conflict of interest

Peer review – or evaluation by experts prior to funding a grantproposal or prior to publishing research results – is an importantstep for ensuring evidence supports claims, enhancing quality, andcorrecting errors. Researchers have a responsibility to participatein the review of proposals and not to abuse the trust on which thereview process is based, the report says. And pre-publicationreviewers need to assess publications fairly with full disclosureof conflicts of interest.

Because science is increasingly used to help form publicpolicies, scientists need to communicate about their work clearlyand comprehensively – including clearly assessing the uncertaintiesassociated with their results, the report says. At the same time,they need to avoid advocacy based on their authority asresearchers, being careful to distinguish between their roles asscientists and as advocates.

Provide training on responsible conduct

The report also includes recommendations for public and privatefunding agencies, including that funding agencies should avoidpolicies that might put more weight on quantity over quality ofresearch. Research institutions, with the support of fundingagencies, should establish clear rules that define responsibleresearch, provide training on responsible conduct, and establishmechanisms for addressing allegations of misconduct and theprotection of whistleblowers.

“Too often there is an overemphasis of quantity over quality inthe reward systems for researchers, which can send the wrongmessage to young researchers,” said IAP Co-Chair Howard Alper,chair, Canadian Science, Technology, and Innovation Council, andformer president, Royal Society of Canada. “Funding agencies andresearch institutions should promote and reward excellence.”

Develop ethical framework

National academies should provide forceful leadership on issuesrelated to responsible conduct in research, including establishingand disseminating standards, said the committee, which is beingexpanded to now develop international educational materials basedon the report. The committee said that the ultimate goal of itsproject is to help the global research enterprise develop anethical framework that applies to every individual and institutioninvolved in research.

“National scientific academies throughout the world can play acritical role in promoting the establishment and maintenance ofstandards of scientific integrity, and we look forward to newglobal and regional initiatives on behalf of the academies,” statedIAP Co-Chair Mohamed H.A. Hassan, chair, Council, United NationsUniversity, and former president, African Academy of Sciences.

The new report, ResponsibleConduct in the Global Research Enterprise: A Policy Report, canbe found on the IAP and IAC websites: www.interacademies.netand

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