Home | Industry & Research | People ‘very concerned’: professor alarmed by new research code of conduct

People ‘very concerned’: professor alarmed by new research code of conduct

A medical researcher has warned countries like China are eclipsing us in terms of research integrity mechanisms.

Professor David Vaux, deputy director and joint division head at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, claims this is because the revised Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, released last month, is watered down.

“It seems Australia is going the opposite way to the rest of world,” Vaux said.

“There are a lot of people who are very concerned.”

Around 20 European nations, the UK, the US, Canada, and now China, have national offices of research integrity. Meanwhile, Australia just changed its research ethics code to a confidential, self-regulating model.

Research institutions no longer have to appoint external investigators for allegations of serious misconduct, there is no longer a requirement for institutions to report on findings of investigations, and institutions can now self-define ‘misconduct’.

Vaux thinks this could have a negative flow-on effect in terms of international student numbers. “If Australia is perceived as one of the few countries in the world where there’s no independent oversight of research integrity… I think students will realise there are other countries that offer more rigorous governance,” he said.

Though he believes the original, 2007 code needed to be clarified in various respects, he thinks the new code, formulated by a “well-meaning but not particularly experienced” panel, could lead to confusion, as well as perceived or actual conflicts of interest.

In regards to confusion, this could arise because there is no longer a mandated definition of ‘misconduct’. This could become particularly troublesome in instances of cross-institutional collaboration.

“Everywhere else in the world uses the term, so it’s reasonable for us to do so as well,” Vaux said.

Conflict of interest-wise, the fact that the revised code provides that no external investigators need to be appointed, and that decisions need not be published, leaves institutions vulnerable to accusations of bias from accusers and defendants.

“One of the biggest cases [regarding research integrity in Australia] was the Bruce Hall affair. It was one of the reasons the 2007 code was established. It led to the resignation of the UNSW VC, it cost lots of money, everyone was unhappy. It was generally a disaster,” Vaux said.

“In an editorial for the Medical Journal of Australia, the then-editor Martin Van Der Weyden reflected on the Hall Affair. Lesson number one, he said, was that future investigations into research misconduct should be external and independent.

“We’ve seen problems in the church, with banks, and with the police. In every case, you need independent oversight and governance.

“Scientists are no better or worse than anybody else … the majority are fine people but there are always those who do the wrong thing.

“For the system to be robust, we need mechanisms to handle those few cases that will inevitably arise.”

The revised code, published by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian Research Council (ARC), and Universities Australia, is expected to be adhered to by 1 July 2019.

Institutions’ receipt of funding from the NHMRC and ARC is contingent on code compliance.

In a statement, Chief Executive Officer of NHMRC, Professor Anne Kelso AO, averred that “… the 2018 Code will help to maintain Australia’s strong culture of research quality and integrity.”

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