Good practices

Definitions of bad conduct under debate

Bia MeloA recent proposal by Australian scientific institutions has rekindled the debate on the definition of scientific misconduct, usually limited to cases of fraud, falsification of data, and plagiarism. The idea is to adopt a broader description of the irregular behavior practiced by researchers, removing the term “misconduct” from the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, which is currently being reviewed. The guide was originally released in 2007 by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian Research Council (ARC), and Universities Australia (UA), an organization that represents 39 universities in the country. The agencies argue that the absence of an internationally adopted definition of scientific misconduct hinders the standardization of investigations and good practice guidelines. As a result, they suggest that the term be replaced by “breaches of code.”

According to the proposal, which was open for public consultation until February 28, the move aims to encourage people to report all possible types of failure, rather than just the most extreme forms of misconduct such as deliberate fabrication of data. Another objective included in the proposal is to avoid the term “misconduct” altogether, because it is pejorative.

The idea has attracted criticism. It is feared that the measure could make policies and actions aimed at curbing fraudulent practices less rigorous, leading each institution to adopt their own definition of misconduct. Kerry Breen, a retired physician from Melbourne and a member of the NHMRC who participated in the creation of the Australian code in 2007, sent a letter to the agency that was published by the Retraction Watch website. “In my view, it is very sloppy logic to claim that omission of any reference to research misconduct is because ‘there is not one universally agreed definition of research misconduct,’” he wrote. “The use of ‘breach’ in preference to ‘research misconduct’ seems to me to be an amazingly arbitrary decision based solely on its current use in Canada,” said Breen, referring to the code established by The Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) in Canada.

The Canadian code was revised in 2016, and the term “misconduct” was replaced by “breach.” According to the new version, it is less important to determine whether a breach was deliberate or accidental than to promote measures that prevent it from reoccurring. According to Susan Zimmerman, director of the SRCR, a broader definition was needed in order to include other types of failure in investigations. “Some breaches occur due to forgetfulness or a lack of attention. Yet they still harm scientific integrity and undermine public and government trust in research. We therefore need to consider a broader and more diverse range of activities than intentional misconduct alone,” Zimmerman told Pesquisa FAPESP.