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good practices

The decisive role of universities

Teaching and research institutions are the most important arena for combating misconduct, affirms an editorial published in the journal Science

Elisa CararetoThe debate over the role of universities, scientific journals and funding agencies in the promotion of scientific integrity was put into closer focus in an editorial piece published in the journal Science on August 11, 2017 signed by two vice-presidents of New York’s Columbia University. In the text, which is available at, attorney Naomi Schrag and geophysicist Graham Michael Purdy said that they found it strange that the voices of academic institutions and their leadership were quiet in the discussion on the responsibility of different actors in the scientific community in the fight against misconduct, and noted that universities are the decisive arena in the promotion of high standards of research quality. According to the editorial, academic institutions should not outsource to others—journals, funders, and professional societies–the work of ensuring that the foundation of science is solid, and that results are valid. “Journals, societies and funding agencies are not in the laboratory, clinic, or field. They do not analyze data, write manuscripts, or prepare figures,” wrote Schrag and Purdy. In the assessment of the pair from Columbia, university leaders have the necessary tools to promote good practices and ensure the accuracy of research results.

Quality indicators routinely flaunted by universities, such as the ability to obtain financing and publish articles in high impact journals, require a solid base of robust methods and clear reporting, they stated in the text. “Universities should publicly reinforce the value of research quality by identifying it as a criterion for appointments, promotions, and adjustments in compensation. They should provide resources to support this message at all staff and student levels, such as thorough training in experimental design and data analysis.”

They said the starting point is to not ignore the problem, but to instill the perception in their researchers that misconduct and reproducibility–the challenge of confirming the results of a study in subsequent research–are real problems.

The idea that the fight against misconduct requires coordinated action between universities, journal editors and research funding agencies was one of the principal themes of the report Fostering Integrity in Research, published in April 2017 by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 255). The need to articulate efforts was also debated in May 2017 at the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity, held in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. A document presented at this event proposed new guidelines for coordinating the work of editors and universities for dealing with cases of misconduct (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 256).

Schrag and Purdy argue that the solutions for dealing with this problem are already known, but need to be reinforced: “Universities must strengthen their research integrity offices, review and improve research integrity training programs, and develop proactive programs to prevent research misconduct.” They also suggested that universities should make special efforts in two areas: mentoring of students and young researchers and data management. An example of mentoring they consider inspiring is the mentor training program developed in 2003 by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which was tested and found effective in 16 academic medical centers. This initiative, supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, proposes that mentors expose students to the concepts of good practices as soon as possible, use concrete situations to show what kinds of scientific misconduct may occur, and foster a relationship of trust and proximity with the mentees, always respecting ethical standards in order to avoid situations that could configure an abuse of authority.

In the field of data management, a model cited as promising is the Research and Data Integrity Program of Columbia University, which provides researchers with an exhaustive collection of tutorials, models and manuals to help with conducting research, data management, and compliance with requirements that ensure reproducibility of the results. Created by Naomi Schrag, who is herself responsible for training and the institution’s scientific integrity programs, the program also provides guidance on how to establish research data management plans, as well as storing, sharing and preserving the information.

Interest in this topic is growing. On December 9, 2016, Columbia University held a symposium in partnership with five other New York research institutions to discuss credibility, reproducibility and integrity of the research. “The positive response and vigorous participation by panelists and attendees, who included faculty, trainees, journal editors, academic leaders, and government officials, reflected the academic community’s hunger for substantive discussion of these issues,” according to the article in the journal Science.

Elisa CararetoFAPESP Code establishes the responsibilities of institutions

Released in 2011, the FAPESP Code of good scientific practices establishes a series of responsibilities of research institutions in terms of preservation of scientific integrity. According to the code, universities and institutes that have projects and grants financed by the Foundation have the primary responsibility for fostering a culture that encourages good scientific conduct by students and researchers, and for the prevention, investigation and punishment of deviations from standards .

The code states that institutions should have transparent policies and procedures to deal with ethical matters regarding research. It also determines that they have one or more entities in their organization charts that are responsible for offering educational programs, counseling and training focused on the promotion of good scientific practices and to investigate suspected cases of misconduct, punish those responsible and make redress for any damages.

The section of the code on institutional responsibility states that scientific journals should use procedures to identify misconduct in articles submitted for publication; in the event any such occurrences are found in research projects financed by FAPESP, both the institution with which the author is affiliated and the Foundation should be promptly informed.