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Integrity advisors

Australia assesses the impact of specialists responsible for guiding teachers and students on responsible conduct, a model that is gaining ground in other countries

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Australian researchers analyzed the efficiency and usefulness of a specific position established at the country’s universities in 2007 with the aim of fostering good scientific practices: the research integrity advisor. There are currently around 750 advisors at more than one hundred higher education institutions in Australia, many recruited from the faculties of the universities themselves. Their job is to provide guidance to colleagues and students on any integrity-related topic, such as the authorship rules of scientific articles or what to do in the event of harassment or a conflict of interest. The role was established 16 years ago in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research and is exclusively advisory in nature. They are there to give advice, not to investigate or judge allegations of misconduct, although they are required to report any violations to higher authorities.

According to the study, published in the journal Accountability in Research: Ethics, Integrity and Policy at the end of July, the results of Australia’s experiment have been mixed. In a questionnaire answered by 192 advisors, many complained that their universities offered them little support and said that although they consider their work productive, they are used less than they could be. Thirteen percent said they had not received any type of training to perform the role. “Some institutions may be in breach of their compliance with the national integrity policy,” said Adrian Barnett, the study’s lead author, on a post on his LinkedIn profile. Barnett is a professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and wrote the paper with colleagues from Bond University and the University of Newcastle, Australia. The study found that two institutions failed to comply with legislation and did not have any advisors. At others, the position appears to have been created simply as a formality. One of the interviewees only discovered they had been appointed to the role after being approached by researchers to answer the questionnaire.

Some institutions in the country, however, have seriously invested in these professionals, including James Cook University, the University of Queensland, the University of Newcastle, and the University of Adelaide, among others. Many respondents described their work as rich and productive. “Four times a year I get together with my fellow advisors and we present cases to each other anonymously. That is a great learning experience,” said one. Overall, the advisors believe the guidance they provide is of benefit: 58% reported that their work was useful “most of the time” and only 2% said they were of no help. Advisors say their workloads are light — they dedicate an average of less than one day per month to the role. “I am not consulted often, but when I am, I believe the responses I provide help the person seeking advice and avoid a negative situation from escalating,” said one participant. Some complained about the complexity of the task. “The situations are usually extremely complicated, involving power imbalances,” said one of the advisors.

The questionnaire responses allowed the researchers to identify on which topics students and academics most needed guidance. The most common issue, reported by 83% of advisors, was who should be named as an author of a scientific article and situations in which authorship was in question. Next are challenges related to collaborative work, as well as questionable research practices, conflicts of interest, inadequate supervision, and impasses involving the sharing of data. The topic advisors dealt with the least was sexual harassment, probably because there are other bodies responsible for dealing with the problem, which is prevalent in Australian universities (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 316).

The study also concluded that there is a lot of room for improvement. Roughly 80% of respondents agreed that their role should be more active and should include promoting good practices, rather than just supporting researchers who have problems. Around two-thirds of them agreed students and faculty need to be made more aware of the role of integrity advisors. One limitation highlighted by the researchers is the fact that advisors are often senior scientists who hold executive positions at their institutions — some were even deans of research — which could make younger colleagues reluctant to expose conflicts due to concerns for their future career. One way of improving the system, according to Barnett and his colleagues, would be to use the model adopted at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which offers access to integrity advisors from other institutions.

Australia was a pioneer at implementing the role of scientific integrity advisors, but it is not the only country to adopt the strategy for promoting good research practices and creating a safe environment to discuss ethical dilemmas in research institutions. Some in Denmark, such as Aarhus University, and the UK, such as the University of Glasgow and King’s College London, have also recently hired advisors to fulfill this role. The Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity has established similar roles, while the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity is also training advisors to work at the country’s universities.

In 2017, France approved legislation allowing universities to appoint independent researchers with no links to their decision-making processes as scientific integrity officers. Two years ago, the role was officially regulated, with integrity advisors in the country responsible for promoting responsible research conduct, monitoring potential misconduct, and reporting suspicious cases to the institution’s administration. In another study published in Accountability in Research: Ethics, Integrity and Policy this year, Nicolas Deniau of the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines interviewed 11 integrity officers recently appointed by French medical schools and concluded that they take an active approach to their mission. “These officers emphasize their independent role and intend to be enablers of responsible research conduct,” Deniau wrote. According to the author, his results are encouraging and highlight the potential impact the role can have on promoting scientific integrity.