Research Misconduct Unrevealed

Research Misconduct Unrevealed

- in Feature story
@Tove Nordén
Magnus Gudmundsson is the secretary of the committee and handles cases and acts as an advisor. Photo: Jonas Jacobson

Research misconduct occurs more than what is brought to the attention of the university – few cases are reported. Fear and hierarchies are some of the reasons. A report only leads to an internal investigation in which the rule of law is low.

Imagine that you have just started your doctoral studentship at Lund University. You are a research doctoral student, examining something completely new, collecting data and getting results that will be published in scientific journals. You have become a part of the academic world and the professors are your colleagues. Your enthusiasm is soaring high. But after half your four-year service, the feeling is not that good anymore.

After many hours in the lab and hard work writing your articles you have not received as much recognition as you had imagined. Your supervisor has taken the credit for and might have been signed as the principle writer of your article. You feel neglected and unfairly treated.

This kind of story is unfortunately not uncommon in the world of higher education. It is actually a problem outside the doctoral students’ world as well – it is a problem that is found in the whole of the researcher community. Researchers must always be honest about their results – otherwise they have committed research misconduct. It could be different things: everything from plagiarism, ill-conducted experiments to intentionally taking the credit for someone else’s work.

This is an especially hot topic right now which has raised the question of how research misconduct should be investigated. It has been discussed both in Sweden and internationally. The reason is a case at Karolinska Institutet, KI. It involves an Italian top researcher and surgeon, who was a visiting researcher at KI about five years ago. His research concerned artificial throats made from plastic, but covered in stem cells from the spinal marrow so that they would not be rejected by the body. The surgeon’s work was still in its research phase, but he was an internationally renowned researcher. The KI recruited him on the basis of his status. But when a severely ill man with throat cancer was admitted to the emergency room at the hospital, the scientist could not stop himself from taking a chance – and operated. The surgical operation became a scientific article about how well the method worked. Three surgical operations later two patients lost their lives. One patient is still alive, but needs intensive care.

Not until three years later does a scientist, who is also listed as a co–author on at least one article, hand in a report of research misconduct. The information on the surgical operations was not true, and the ethical review that should have been done before the first surgical operation had never been made. The surgical operation had never been performed before, neither on animals nor on human beings.

“If the allegations are proven to be correct this could be one of the biggest research misconduct scandals Sweden has ever seen. And the case has already prompted a discussion on how research misconduct should be investigated,” says Mats Johansson, coordinator of the Research Ethical Network at Lund University.

The story of the renowned researcher has as such instigated a discussion. In Sweden the responsibility to investigate alleged misconduct lies with the university or college in question, where the vice-chancellor makes the final decision, which is unusual from an international perspective. There is support for a systematic investigation of research misconduct in the Higher Education Act, but it is not specified how that should be done. The Swedish system relies on internal investigation, which can be performed in various ways depending on which Swedish seat of learning is involved.

Different seats of learning have their own regulations and varied ways of investigating the problems. At Uppsala University, misconduct is investigated by a lawyer and a temporary group appointed by the vice-chancellor. At other seats of learning, the involved faculty investigates the problems by themselves, following local regulations and procedures, and then again there are seats of learning who have the same system as Lund University – a central committee for research misconduct.

It is that committee that handles reports on alleged misconduct. Magnus Gudmundsson is the secretary of the committee and handles cases and acts as an advisor. People may call him for advice if they suspect that something is not handled correctly. The allegation is handed to the committee and undergoes a two-step process, where the second step is a full investigation if it is deemed pertinent. The committee then puts a suggestion to the vice-chancellor, upon which the vice-chancellor decides to support the investigation or not and decides if misconduct has been committed or not.

“It is unfortunate that these investigations are conducted differently at different seats of learning. In some cases a seat of learning has found a researcher guilty, while an investigation by the Central Ethical Review Board’s expertise found them not guilty”, he says.

Lund University has few research misconduct allegations. In a five-year-period the committee has received 15 allegations, and just one case have been fully investigated. It is remarkably few cases that lead anywhere. Magnus Gudmundsson thinks there are things at the university that is never even investigated.

“I can’t really say that there is a lot of misconduct at the university, but there could be things that we do not hear about, that is taken care of in other ways. And there are both advantages and disadvantages with that”, he says.

He explains that if a research team works optimally, it is possible to investigate the problems within the team, but if it is taken too far it could have consequences.

“You should have permission to stretch limitations – that is what research is all about. But never in an improper way. The problem occurs if the team does not intervene, or does not make a report or does not tell us. I think this silence and fear to report someone do that we not find out things that would need to be investigated”, he says.

“The fact that many do not report could depend on several things”, says Magnus Gudmundsson, “but also that the competition between the researchers plays a significant part of it”.

“The research community is about honor, power and money, and it is also this that can cause misconduct in itself or a fear of reporting someone. You could end up with the reputation of being a whistleblower. That can easily lead to being ostracized”, he says. 

Reports often concern publications, i.e. that different researchers in a research team might disagree upon what to publish. This is also a very complex issue. The whole academic world is built on traditions and established practices, and the practices vary a lot between different subjects. For instance, in medicine, different journals have together decided upon certain publishing rules – the so-called Vancouver Rules. 

But other subjects have other ways of doing things. Which author should be listed first in the article? Should a researcher in a team always be on the author list or not? And even if there is an established practice, it could be executed in different ways locally, and in different departments.

“That is why these issues are so hard to investigate and analyze. Usually the customary practice works, but when the practice is disregarded or researchers disagree, there is a problem”, Magnus Gudmundsson says. 

Alexandra Popovic, the Doctoral Student Ombudsman at Lund University, indicates that doctoral students are especially vulnerable to these issues.

“It is not uncommon that doctoral students come to me with these kind of issues. In subjects where a co-authorship is common and researchers are working in projects, it is a challenge that doctoral students are facing all the time. I think it is strange that these issues are not more widely discussed at the university”, she says.

She also finds it problematic that the responsibility to report misconduct is put on those with less authority at the university, in particular the doctoral students.

“The whole research community needs to raise the question of ethics much more. It cannot be fair that doctoral students should be responsible for handing in an allegation, since the power relation between a doctoral student and a supervisor or a head of department is so unbalanced.”

“Besides the fact that the doctoral students are completely dependent on the researchers finished with their doctoral studies, they also rarely have people on their side to support them”, she continues.

New doctoral students often have an introductory course, but it varies how much ethics it actually contains.

“I think it is important to discuss ethics all the time and that it is an open discussion, not something to dodge around at the university. At the moment I think that there too much responsibility lying with the doctoral students to report to the committee about research misconduct. If a doctoral student brought a problem to the head of the department it is not always taken seriously”, she says.

Aleksandra Popovic är doktorandombudsman. Foto: Arkiv/Privat
Alexandra Popovic, the Doctoral Student Ombudsman at Lund University. Photo: Private

“The university needs a whole new way of thinking about these issues, where there is a proactive work to stop misconduct from happening in the first place instead of letting it get all the way to misconduct allegations”, says Alexandra Popovic.

“It is a good thing the information goes out to the doctoral students, but too much responsibility is placed with them. They’re not supposed to be ‘the research police’ in these kinds of cases. Why shouldn’t e.g. the supervisors have a similar education in research ethics?”

“I find it problematic that the issue is not brought to discussion. Last year saw some discussions about all doctoral students attending a research ethics course, but then another problem arose: there has to be an established standard practice – but there isn’t”, she says.

The problem with an internal investigation being too subjective at times is further exacerbated by the varying practices between different fields. It is easy to imagine a university keeping research misconduct under the wraps to protect their immaculate reputation. How can a university investigate itself while wanting to score high in rankings? The rankings are based on research results and achievements. Magnus Gudmundsson agrees that the system is not within the rule of law principles.

“Of course there is a risk. I would also like to see a national investigation system, but I don’t believe that the seats of learning should completely lose control over alleged cases of misconduct  either, since we know our university and what measures might be needed”, he says.

One problem with a separate national investigation system is that even fewer might hand in allegations, Magnus Gudmundsson believes. But Mats Johansson, coordinator of the Research Ethical Network at Lund University, believes a disadvantage could be that the allegations would increase.

“The challenge with an external authority to investigate research misconduct would be if there were a severe amount of allegations. Then they would have to quickly decide upon what to do”, Mats Johansson says.

It is always easier for an organization to deal with its own problems, but it is hardly what creates credibility. And it might theoretically work that the universities investigate themselves, but in the end a vice-chancellor’s decision is impossible to appeal. Magnus Gudmundsson recounts two cases that have been appealed to the Administrative Court and the Administrative Court of Appeal, both with the same reply: the decision cannot be appealed against. Magnus Gudmundsson thinks that the committee, that he himself is a part of, works in an objective manner, although he can understand and relate to the criticism.

And then there’s the conflict of interest. Mats Johansson thinks that the current internal investigation system points at severe problems.

“I think the conflict of interest must be taken much more seriously. It is not reasonable to investigate oneself as a university. There’s too much prestige and such at stake”.

Even the Vice-Chancellor of Lund University, Torbjörn von Schantz, wants to see another way of handling these issues. He thinks that a national system would be a better solution.

“I, as Vice-Chancellor, should not be the one with the final responsibility for an investigation of our own professors or colleagues. That is not good. There is no rule of law at all. On the other hand, I think that the universities, all together, should be the responsible authority of these investigations. Let us say, for instance, there is a committee with a network that can gather the experts within the specific scientific field that will then do the investigation”, he says. 

The problem of research misconduct remains. It seems to be investigated in different ways depending on the people doing the investigation and what regulations they are following. The rule of law is weak for both the person reported and the whistleblower. In the end the vice-chancellor decides. The investigation of the Italian surgeon at the KI led to a plain result: guilty of misconduct. But at the beginning of September the Vice-Chancellor of the KI decided to disregard that result and acquitted the surgeon from the suspicion of research misconduct. The obvious follow-up question concerns trustworthiness.

“I cannot say if the decision was right or wrong, but just the suspicion that someone is under protection for different reasons is negative from the perspective of the rule of law. It could lessen people’s trust of the universities and colleges. We should take well care of that trust, because it is very good these days”, says Vice-Chancellor Torbjörn von Schantz. 

In addition to the KI case, the Swedish Higher Education Authority has examined and handed in two other cases to the government, and suggested an inquiry. If the government appoint an investigation, we might have a more consistent and trustworthy system for investigating research misconduct within ten years.
“There is a lot of support for a national group, and there is a lot of lobbying from different directions. I think that a new set of rules is a good way to avoid the criticism on universities investigating themselves, and it will be the next step in being objective”, says Magnus Gudmundsson.

Translation: Lina Johansson

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