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Good practices

Swedish universities suffer crisis of confidence

Parliament sets up agency to centralize investigations into scientific misconduct

Elisa Carareto

A government agency formed to investigate cases of research fraud, plagiarism, and data manipulation in Sweden is due to begin operating in January 2020. In June, the Swedish government passed legislation establishing the new body, called the Research Misconduct Board. The agency will be responsible for investigating all cases involving research carried out at public and private institutions in the country, as well as disclosing the results of the investigations. If allegations are found to be true, the funding agencies, universities, and research institutes themselves will decide on how to sanction the researchers involved. Until now, investigations have been conducted internally, and institutions have not always agreed on what constitutes misconduct. They can ask the Central Ethics Committee for advice, but there is no obligation for them to follow its recommendations. “In some cases, there are claims that the investigation was not conducted fairly or transparently. The proposed system is an improvement,” Karin Åmossa, a director at the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, told the journal Nature.

The idea of centralizing misconduct investigations to standardize the reporting procedure and sanctions has been discussed in several countries. In 2017, Denmark set up a similar body, which has since dealt with a dozen cases. Last year, after finding that one in four institutions was not complying with scientific integrity guidelines that had been in place for seven years, a British parliamentary inquiry proposed establishing a government committee to oversee university investigations. Countries such as Australia and Canada also have agencies that oversee suspected cases of misconduct, while China has announced plans to centralize this task under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Nicholas Steneck, a scientific integrity expert and former director of the research integrity and ethics program at the University of Michigan, USA, told Nature that such initiatives, designed to preserve public trust in the work of scientists, represent a contradiction. “If universities cannot be trusted to carry out responsible investigations, why should we trust them with any research funding?” he asks. Steneck believes probes should continue to be conducted in-house, but with changes to make them more efficient, and says it makes no sense to assign minor cases with little impact on scientific integrity to a central agency.

The model adopted by FAPESP falls somewhere between the Swedish proposal and Steneck’s ideal. The FAPESP Code of Good Scientific Practices states that research institutions are primarily responsible for promoting a culture of good scientific conduct among their researchers and students, as well as preventing, investigating, and punishing scientific misconduct. However, it also establishes the Foundation’s responsibility for ensuring that all allegations of scientific misconduct related to the research it funds are properly investigated, and appropriate punitive and corrective measures are taken when needed. In this regard, the code defines minimum conditions that investigations must meet to be deemed sufficiently rigorous and fair, avoiding conflicts of interest and bias and guaranteeing the right to a proper defense and presumption of innocence. It establishes that a detailed and justified investigation report for every allegation of misconduct must be submitted to FAPESP for approval.

The Swedish government say the new system is needed because delegating investigations to universities can result in conflicts of interest. “It is difficult to conduct unbiased investigations. It has also proven problematic for higher education institutions to investigate themselves while also protecting their own reputation,” said a government statement published on its own website. Helene Knutsson, the former Swedish minister for higher education and research who proposed the agency last year, says the system is designed to provide greater clarity and legal certainty. “No one should ever need to doubt Swedish research, and no patient should ever risk being subjected to treatments that are the result of research fraud,” she said.

Although Knutsson does not mention any specific episodes, one case that significantly eroded public confidence in the ability of universities to self-regulate was the scandal involving Italian surgeon Paolo Macchiarini at the renowned Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm between 2010 and 2016. Macchiarini falsified the results of an experimental artificial trachea transplant surgery, but Karolinska Institutet, which is responsible for selecting Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine, acquitted the Italian after three successive investigations, despite admitting that he had failed to meet the quality standards required by the institution. The case was only reopened after an article in an American journal and a Swedish television documentary showed that in addition to covering up the less favorable results of his transplants, he also lied on his résumé and in his social life—despite being married, Macchiarini proposed to a journalist and told her that Pope Francis would perform the ceremony. The scandal led to the dismissal of three members of the Karolinska board, including vice dean Anders Hamsten.

In 2017, a new case caught the attention of the Swedish scientific community. An article published by researchers from Uppsala University in the journal Science a year earlier was retracted after an independent investigation found evidence that some of the experiments described were never actually performed. The paper, by biologists Peter Eklöv and Oona Lönnstedt, argued that microplastic pollution in the ocean causes growth problems in marine fauna and leaves creatures more vulnerable to predators. The pair falsely stated that their research was endorsed by an animal ethics committee, and they were unable to provide the original data from the experiment, claiming the laptop on which it was stored had been stolen. Prior to the independent investigation, Uppsala University itself evaluated the case, and just like Karolinska, acquitted the researchers, who have now been banned from receiving public funding for four years. An article published by Lönnstedt in 2014 is also being investigated for suspected data manipulation.