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New NHMRC code of conduct has researchers worried


A revised research code of conduct released by the NHMRC and Universities Australia this month has been criticised by several leading academics, who say it may be open to abuse.

Under the new code, any serious breach of research ethics, such as plagiarism, falsification or fabrication, must be investigated by the institution itself, rather than by an independent body. Academics have flagged several concerns with this arrangement. Cell biologist Professor David Vaux, who is deputy director of science integrity and ethics at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Institute of Medical Research, notes that including any external members on investigatory panels is optional in the new code of conduct.

“Self-regulation just doesn’t work. This represents a step backwards, and will inevitably lead to conflicts of interest,” he told the website Retraction Watch.

Academics are worried that without an independent investigating body, researchers are less likely to get a fair, impartial hearing, and that public confidence in Australian research might also take a hit.

It also means that institutions, even small ones, will have the extra burden of establishing their own research integrity offices. A much more economic solution, and the route most other developed countries have taken, is to pool resources into an independent body, says Professor Vaux.

Countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have set up independent bodies to deal with serious research misconduct. Even China, hardly an exemplar of transparency, has recently said it will no longer rely on research institutions to investigate their own researchers and will set up a process within the Ministry of Science and Technology.

“We are going in the opposite direction to China,” notes Professor Vaux.

Another problem academics have flagged with the code is its preference for the term “breach”, categorised from minor to serious, rather than the more conventional “misconduct”.

While research “misconduct” is reasonably robustly defined as instances of plagiarism, falsification and fabrication, “breech” casts a wider net and potentially opens the door to investigating any so-called breach, US bioethicist Nicholas Steneck has warned in an interview with Nature Index.

The code defines research misconduct as serious breaches carried out with “intent, recklessness or negligence”, a definition that some say puts too much emphasis on the subjective state of mind of the researcher and not enough on the objective  trustworthiness of the research itself.

The Australian research community has faced a number of high-profile cases of research misconduct over the past few years. These include the case of Dr Caroline Barwood and Dr Bruce Murdoch of the University of Queensland, who in 2015 were among the very few medical researchers ever to face criminal charges in a case of research misconduct. Both were found guilty of fraud for falsifying research into Parkinson’s disease, and both received suspended sentences.

The new code of conduct came into force on 14 June, and failure to comply with it could result in suspension of NHMRC funding.