Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson
At first glance, there is much to be pleased about the new version of the Australian Code that was released on 14th June. A short, clear document that is based upon principles and an overt focus on research culture is a positive move away from the tight rules that threatened researchers and research offices alike for deviation from standards that might not be appropriate or even workable in all contexts.
The 2007 Code was rightly criticized on several grounds. First, weighing a system down with detailed rules burdened the vast majority with unneeded compliance for the recklessness and shady intentions of a very small minority. Second, there was reason to suspect the detailed rules did not stop the ‘bad apples’. Third, those detailed rules probably did not inspire early career researchers to engage with research integrity and embrace and embed better practice into their research activity. Finally, the Code did little to create an overall system able to undertake continuous improvement.
But, before we start to celebrate any improvements, we need to work through what has changed and what institutions and researchers need to do about it. And, then, maybe a quiet celebration might be in order.
Researchers have some fairly basic needs when it comes to research integrity. They need to know what they should do: first, as researchers and research supervisors in order to engage in good practice; second, if they encounter poor practice by another researcher; and, third, if other people complain about their practices.
The 2007 Australian Code offered some help with each of these. In some cases, this ‘help’ was structured as a requirement and over time was found wanting. The 2018 version appreciated that these questions might be basic but that the answers were often complex. The second and third questions are partly answered by the accompanying Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide) and we’ll return to this. The answer to the first question is brief.
The Code begins to address responsibilities around research integrity through a set of eight principles that apply to researchers as well as their institutions: honesty; rigour; transparency; fairness; respect; recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples to be engaged in research; accountability, and promotion of responsible research practices. Explicit recognition of the need to respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did not appear in the 2007 version. There are 13 responsibilities specific to institutions. There are 16 responsibilities, specific to researchers, that relate to compliance with legal and ethical responsibilities, require researchers to ensure that they support a responsible culture of research, undertake appropriate training, provide mentoring, use appropriate methodology and reach conclusions that are justified by the results, retain records, disseminate findings, disclose and manage of conflicts of interest, acknowledge research contributions appropriately, participate in peer review and report breaches of research integrity.
In only a few cases might a researcher read these parts of the Code and conclude that the requirements are inappropriate. It would be a little like disagreeing with the Singapore Statement (the one on research integrity, not the recent Trump-Kim output). Mostly, the use of words like ‘appropriate’ within the Code (it appears three times in the Principles, twice in the responsibilities of institutions and five times in responsibilities of researchers) limit the potential for particular responsibilities to be over-generalised from one discipline and inappropriately transferred to others.
There are some exceptions, and some researchers may find it difficult to ‘disseminate research findings responsibly, accurately and broadly’, particularly if they are subject to commercial-in-confidence restrictions or public sector limitations, and we know that there are significant pressures on researchers to shape the list of authors in ways that may have little to do with ‘substantial contribution’.
For researchers, the Code becomes problematic if they go to it seeking advice on how they ought to behave in particular contexts. The answers, whether they were good or bad in the 2007 Code, are no longer there. So, a researcher seeking to discover how to identify and manage a conflict of interest or what criteria ought to determine authorship will need to look elsewhere. And, institutions will need to broker access to this information either by developing it themselves or by pointing to good sectoral advice from professional associations, international bodies such as the Committee for Publication Ethics, or the Guides that the NHMRC has indicated that it will publish.
We are told that the Australian Code Better Practice Guides Working Group will produce guides on authorship and data management towards the end of 2018 (so hopefully at least six months before the deadline of 1 July 2019 for institutions to implement the updated Australian Code). However, we do not know which other guides will be produced, who will contribute to their development nor, in the end, how useful they will be in informing researcher practice. We would hope that the Working Group is well progressed with the further suite if it is to be able to collect feedback and respond to that before that deadline.
There are at least eight areas where attention will be required. We need:
- A national standard data retention period for research data and materials.
- Specified requirements about data storage, security, confidentiality and privacy.
- Specified requirements about the supervision and mentoring of research trainees.
- A national standard on publication ethics, including such matters as republication of a research output.
- National criteria to inform whether a contributor to a research project could or should not be listed as an author of a research output.
- Other national standards on authorship matters.
- Specified requirements about a conflicts of interest policy.
- Prompts for research collaborations between institutions.
For each of those policy areas the following matters should be considered:
1. Do our researchers need more than the principle that appears in the 2018 Australian Code?
2. If yes, is there existing material upon which an institution’s guidance material can be based?
3. Who will write, consider and endorse the guidance material at a national or institutional level?
Many institutions will conclude it is prudent to wait until late 2018 to see whether the next two good practice guides are released and discover how much they cover. Even if they do so, institutions will also need to transform these materials into resources that can be used in teaching and learning at the levels of the discipline and do so in a way that builds the commitment to responsible conduct and the ethical imaginations of researchers rather than testing them on their knowledge of compliance matters.
Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches
The Code is accompanied by a Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide). The main function of this Guide is to provide a model process for managing and investigating complaints or concerns about research conduct. However, before examining how to adopt that model, institutions need to make several important preliminary decisions.
First, to be consistent with the Code, the Guide states that institutions should promote a culture that fosters and values responsible conduct of research generally and develop, disseminate, implement and review institutional practices that promote adherence to the Code. Both of these will necessitate the identification of existing structures and processes and a thorough assessment to determine any changes that are needed to ensure that they fulfil these responsibilities.
This means that institutions must assess how their processes conform to the principles of procedural fairness and the listed characteristics of such processes. The procedural fairness principles are described as:
- the hearing rule – the opportunity to be heard
- the rule against bias – decisionmakers have no personal bias in the outcome
- ‘the evidence rule – that decisions are based on evidence.
The characteristics require that an institution’s processes are: proportional; fair; impartial; timely; transparent, and confidential. A thorough review and, where necessary, revision of current practices will be necessary to show conformity to the Guide.
Second, when planning how to adopt the model, institutions need to consider the legal context as the Guide notes that enterprise bargaining agreements and student disciplinary processes may prevail over the Guide.
Third, the model depends on the identification of six key personnel with distinct functions. Some care needs to be taken to match the designated roles with the appropriate personnel, even if their titles differ from those in the model, in an institution’s research management structure. The six personnel are:
- a responsible executive officer, who has final responsibility for receiving report and deciding on actions;
- a designated officer, appointed to receive complaints and oversee their management;
- an assessment officer or officers, who conduct preliminary assessments of complaints;
- research integrity advisers, who have knowledge of, and promote adherence to, the Code and offer advice to those with concerns or complaints;
- research integrity office, staff who are responsible for managing research integrity;
- review officer, who has responsibility to receive requests for procedural review of an investigation.
Last, institutions must decide whether to use the term ‘research misconduct’ at all and, if so, what meaning to give to it. Some guidance is offered in a recommended definition of the term but, as noted above, this will need to be considered in the legal contexts of EBAs and student disciplinary arrangements.
The update to the Code provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on a range of key matters to promote responsible research. The use of principles and responsibilities and the style of the document offers a great deal of flexibility that permits institutions to develop their own thoughtful arrangements. However, this freedom and flexibility comes with a reciprocal obligation on institutions to establish arrangements that are in the public interest rather than ‘just’ complying with a detailed rule. We have traded inflexibility for uncertainty; what comes next is up to all of us.
This post may be cited as:
Allen G., Israel M. and Thomson C. (21 June 2018) Australian Code 2018: What institutions should do next. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/australian-code-2018-what-institutions-should-do-next
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