From Commitment to Action
Experts discuss ways to continuously and effectively promote a culture of honesty among researchers
What keeps universities and research institutions from moving beyond discussions and good intentions to adopt policies and take actions to promote, in some continuing and effective way, a culture of integrity in scientific research? This question permeated much of the discussion at the III BRISPE (Brazilian Meeting on Research Integrity, Science, and Publication Ethics) attended by more than 100 people and held in the auditorium at FAPESP headquarters in São Paulo, on August 14-15, 2014. The backdrop of the event, organized around the theme of practices followed by institutions to encourage both integrity and responsible conduct in research, was the finding that most universities and scientific institutions, both in Brazil and elsewhere, are still taking a primarily reactive approach. They investigate scandals after they become public and find it difficult to adopt preventive strategies for ensuring ethical behavior at all levels of hierarchy in the realm of research. The conference also served as the preparatory meeting for the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity, to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2015 (see box).
Debates in the FAPESP auditorium identified a set of challenges that institutions need to face. Nicholas Steneck, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, indicated that ongoing training of students and researchers, as proposed in several documents and codes of good practices, but conducted sporadically and unequally, is extremely important. The United States, the world’s leading scientific power and cradle of research integrity practices since the 1980s, has equivocated in implementing such measures, the researcher said. U.S. research-sponsoring agencies, for example, require research teams they finance to have plans in place for training students and researchers. But there is little consistency in those initiatives, which frequently involve volunteer work by the researchers and take on a variety of forms of differing scope, sometimes within the same institution. Some plans use training modules, others offer courses or work with mentors. “It’s hard to control the quality of these initiatives,” Steneck said. Training is also offered via the Internet. That has the advantage, said the researcher, of ensuring uniform content, although the impact on the target audience is questionable. Steneck suggested a hybrid approach be employed that begins on the Internet and progresses to individualized monitoring. “The big challenge is engaging the audience, since it is hard to talk about research integrity all the time,” said Steneck, who realizes it is natural for people to have a certain aversion to the subject, since it is usually associated with scandals and bad news.
Furthermore, integrity policies must be harmonized among various institutional levels and among countries and fields of knowledge. Pages and pages of statements have been approved at international events, in addition to codes of good practices developed by institutions, but they vary widely in approach and do not always have a common denominator. Some countries are concerned about defining the types of misconduct in great detail, so as to better combat them. Others prefer to address the subject positively, giving priority to the formulation of good practices. Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), demonstrated that scientific societies associated with specific fields of knowledge can help consolidate university and government efforts by guiding the training in practices to ensure quality and honesty in research and by drafting rules that make the contribution by each author of a scientific article more transparent—inasmuch as the decisions about who signs the article and in what position each name appears vary among disciplines. “Scientific societies are well positioned to uphold ethical values and standards over time and to transmit them to new generations,” said Frankel.
In the realm of research findings publication, a definition of ethical standards and practices to be followed by authors and editors is seen as essential to ensuring the quality of scientific production. Charlotte Haug, editor-in-chief of the journal of the Medical Association of Norway, reported to the BRISPE on an effort being made by the Committee on Publication Ethics (Cope), a forum in which 9,000 editors of scientific journals participate in suggesting common guidelines related to integrity in science. Establishing such criteria, however, is a task that is still a work in progress. According to Haug, some situations fall into a sort of gray area. As examples, she mentioned journals and repositories for there is no principal editor. “Who will handle the correction if there is a mistake in that literature?” asked Haug, who is vice chair of Cope. There is consensus about several situations in which published scientific articles have to be cancelled or “retracted,” as they say in the scientific circles: if the contribution is not original or if there has been fraud or falsification of data, for example. There are instances, however, that challenge Cope. “Some editors want to retract articles merely to avoid legal action,” said the researcher. One feature of the work by Cope is demonstrating that the responsibility for accuracy of the results reported in a scientific article lies not only with the researcher, but is also shared by the editors, the institutions where the research was conducted, and the research-sponsoring agencies. “Everyone who wants to take credit when a research project is successful must also be prepared to correct the scientific record when something goes wrong,” Haug said.
In 2010, FAPESP introduced its Code of Good Scientific Practices, a set of ethical guidelines intended to govern the professional activities of researchers who receive scholarships and assistance from the Foundation. According to Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos, a member of FAPESP’s Area Panel on Humanities and Social Sciences, Architecture and Economy, no university or research institution in the state of São Paulo has yet set up an internal body to promote research integrity through regular programs for education, outreach and training such as the code stipulates. “The response by universities and research institutions with regard to their responsibilities has been a bit slow,” he said. Lopes dos Santos praised the participation by representatives of São Paulo universities and universities from other states in the discussions held at the BRISPE, which was organized to increase the degree of engagement of the institutions. “Our focus has been to encourage institutions to draft policies for promoting a culture of integrity as a permanent commitment,” he said.
A pioneering example of a permanent arrangement designed to promote good scientific practices is being implemented at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and was presented at the BRISPE by the dean of research at UFRJ, Professor Debora Foguel. Established in July 2013, the Action Committee on Research Ethics has a team of 30, including technical personnel and students interested in the subject. Its six subcommittees meet regularly to address topics such as ethics in research involving human beings, research integrity, the use of animals in laboratories and instruction, biosecurity, access to biodiversity, and university-industry relations. The deputy coordinator of the committee is researcher Sonia Vasconcelos, a UFRJ professor and one of Brazil’s most active proponents of research integrity—it was no coincidence that she was one of the organizers of all three gatherings of the BRISPE. “The committee was established as a response to the growing concern about ethical questions involving the practice and communication of academic research, the growing demand for transparency in science, and the need to promote adherence to paradigms of ethics and responsibility by students, researchers, and technical personnel,” said Foguel.
In a little more than a year since its founding, the committee has already organized workshops for researchers that will train students and colleagues in topics related to research integrity, discussed guidelines for the UFRJ that will probably be announced before the end of September 2014, and acquired a license for a software application that can identify plagiarism in scientific papers by students and researchers. “We still need to discuss in greater depth what to do about fraud, data fabrication, and plagiarism when these are discovered,” the dean said. One instance of plagiarism identified in a monograph by a history student illustrates the extent of the complexity of that task. Since the plagiarism affected almost every aspect of the student’s senior thesis, the student’s diploma was withdrawn. But the university council, the highest governing body of UFRJ, decided to give her a second chance insisting, of course, that she write another monograph. The student was also accepted as a member of the Action Committee, where she has been introduced to concepts related to research integrity. Foguel said the episode left open a series of questions for discussion, such as the conditions under which a student who has been found guilty of plagiarism should be given a new opportunity, or whether it is even possible to teach a student to be honest. But the responsibility, she observes, certainly is not restricted to the students. “Are we spending enough time reading and correcting projects, evidence, monographs, and theses written by our students, encouraging them to be creative and showing that we care about what they are writing?” she asked.
The task of combating misconduct becomes more challenging as the world’s production of knowledge grows and an increasing number of countries mark their presence on the scientific scene. “The problem has gone global. Every country that produces science is being impacted. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the problem,” said Nicholas Steneck. “Brazil has also joined the club,” he said, referring to a recently-revealed group of cases of plagiarism, fraud, and manipulation involving Brazilian researchers and publications in the fields of physics, chemistry, materials, and medicine. One of the most dramatic involved a citation-stacking scheme agreed to among Brazilian journals as a way to raise their impact factors (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 213). “But Brazil is doing more than other countries to promote research integrity,” said Steneck.
Lapses in behavior by scientists, despite being identified and punished with ever-increasing frequency, are becoming more sophisticated. No longer are we dealing only with classic cases of plagiarism, fraud, and fabrication of data—as misconduct has been defined since the 1990s. The problems have become more complicated and now involve, for example, questions or disputes as to the authorship of a scientific article. Since collaborative research has expanded the average number of authors per article, it is hard to know who exactly did what. Rather frequently, an article will list names of researchers who contributed little or nothing but need to be mentioned for political reasons or utterly fraudulent purposes. There was recently a case that involved hacking the online systems maintained by scientific journals that compromised the peer review process: a fraudulent introduction of false e-mails into the system caused the articles submitted to the publication to be evaluated by a gang, rather than by neutral experts (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 222).
Steneck cited recent examples, such as the one involving Craig Thompson, president of one of the biggest cancer research centers in the United States, the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He was accused by the University of Pennsylvania, where he had worked, of appropriating research data that did not belong to him to create a biotechnology startup. Another sensational case was that of German researcher Ulrich Lichtenthaler, of Mannheim University, who had nine articles withdrawn owing to practices such as publication of a single research result in different journals, or the slicing up of conclusions of one study into several articles, expedients taken to artificially boost his scientific production. A survey by Déjà Vu, a computer system that makes it possible to verify suspected plagiarism, identified 79,300 articles indexed on the Medline database that contained duplicate segments. Of all the articles, only 2,100 were examined and of those, 1,900 were retracted. More than 74,000 have yet to be analyzed. “There are a lot of cases of misconduct where the extent of the fraud was underestimated, Steneck said. “Old assumptions, such as the idea that unethical conduct is rare, or restricted to fields of science that are highly competitive such as biomedicine, no longer stand up,” he said.
The challenge of fairly punishing cases of unethical conduct was addressed by those attending the BRISPE in light of the impact of a tragic case: the August 5, 2014 suicide of Japanese biologist Yoshiki Sasai, 52, director of the Laboratory for Organogenesis and Neurogenesis of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, in Japan. One of Japan’s most renowned scientists, he was one of the authors of two articles about a method used to produce stem cells that were published in the journal Nature in January 2014 and retracted in July. Sasai had been advisor for work by Haruko Obokata, a young researcher who was the principal author of the articles. The articles discussed a technique that promised to simplify the production of stem cells, a breakthrough that would have a huge influence on regenerative medicine. The method started to lose credibility when other scientists tried, unsuccessfully, to reproduce it. The institute conducted its own investigation and discovered that Obokata had plagiarized and invented parts of the articles.
“Sasai probably was not directly at fault, but he did not supervise the work as closely as he should have. That was his mistake,” said Charlotte Haug, of Cope. She said cases of unethical conduct must be handled with sensitivity and consistency—and divulging such cases in the press does not always consider those precautions. “Misconduct may involve fairly complicated situations, but sometimes the publicized version is over-simplified,” she said, referring to Retraction Watch, a blog maintained by two researchers who report cases of retracted articles and names of punished researchers in various countries.
There is agreement that concealing cases from public scrutiny is unacceptable, especially after they have been thoroughly investigated by other scientists and punished. “The investigation must be strict, but fair,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, scientific director of FAPESP.
The Foundation deals with about 20 cases of unethical conduct every year involving research it has financed. In most cases, the accusation involves plagiarism. The procedure called for in the FAPESP Code of Good Scientific Practices is to ask institutions to investigate the accusations and present their conclusions. If the results are deemed unsatisfactory, FAPESP may decide to do its own investigation. “Universities and research institutions in the state of São Paulo supported by FAPESP are expected to both define clear policies and procedures to handle issues of research integrity and to have one or more departments or internal bodies designed to promote good scientific practices through regular programs and investigate and punish possible cases of misconduct,” Brito Cruz said. “But investigation and punishment do not represent the most important role played by the bodies that promote good scientific practices at universities. The primary role of those agencies should be to promote an enduring culture of research integrity at those institutions,” he said.
World Conference to be held in Rio de Janeiro
Brazil will host the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) on May 31-June 3, 2015. The event, which will attract experts and other interested persons from different countries to Rio de Janeiro, will discuss research integrity in the context of the compensation systems that prevail in the scientific environment and affect the career of researchers. “In all kinds of countries there is increasing concern about the environment in which scientific activity takes place, about matters of sponsorship, conduct of projects, and the announcement and assessment of results. One of the sources of that concern is the ‘health’ of relations among those environments and the quality of the science, which may be compromised, for example, by projects and articles whose proposals or results are biased,” says Sonia Vasconcelos, a professor at UFRJ and member of the committee that is organizing the event.
It is crucially important that this world event is taking place in Latin America, Vasconcelos observes, especially for countries that take part in networks of collaborative research with other countries where the discussion of research integrity has been taking shape or is already firmly established. “To have a continuing discussion about this subject means, among other things, the establishment of ethical criteria for the conduct and reporting of research in different fields that can often be embraced uncritically by partners,” says the researcher. “I usually say that those countries in this region—especially Brazil, which is the leader in many of those collaborative efforts, should have a voice in those criteria. This makes all the difference, since opinions about many ethical aspects of research, including the very concept of research integrity in different cultures and research systems around the world are not always a matter of consensus. The fact that an international event like this is being held Brazil gives us a voice in that discussion,” Vasconcelos says.
The first World Conference was held in Lisbon in 2007, and organized by the European Foundation of Science and the Office of Research Integrity in the United States. It was successful in laying the initial foundations for a discussion of research integrity on the global level and identifying the principal challenges. The second conference was held in 2010 in Singapore and resulted in a declaration, now translated into several languages and adopted by a number of countries, which defines principles and responsibilities to be followed by those who pursue science. The third conference was held in Montreal in 2013. Progress was made in discussions of the responsibilities of partners in collaborative research efforts and of authors for the results of their research.