Confronted with bad behaviour, institutions will keep asking the wrong questions until they have to show their working, says C. K. Gunsalus.
During decades as a research-integrity officer, expert witness for misconduct investigations and consultant, I have been inspired — and I have seen inexcusable conduct. Even when investigations are exemplary and findings clear, universities rarely report them publicly. That secrecy perpetuates misbehaviour and breeds mistrust — as evidenced by the ongoing revelations of universities that failed to respond appropriately, sometimes for years, to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Science is fast becoming more transparent. So, too, should institutional practice. Open misconduct reports would create a virtuous circle. Institutions would learn from their own and others’ investigations. Leaders would be more likely to pay attention to reports that are subject to scrutiny. Honest researchers could see that although groundbreaking science is often uncertain, it is qualitatively different from the conduct that leads to misconduct reviews.
We are already seeing such a shift in health care. Last month, a study showed that mortality is lower in UK hospitals in which medical professionals feel that they can talk openly about problems without worrying about repercussions to their careers (V. Toffolutti and D. Stuckler Health Affair. http://doi.org/c6df; 2019). I often find that institutional investigators ask the wrong questions, such as: ‘We don’t have to report this, do we?’, ‘How could anyone think Dr X would do such a thing?’ or (to whistle-blowers) ‘Why would you want to cause trouble for your own research project?’ Investigators pin all the blame on one actor without examining the contributions of co-authors or supervisors of the flawed work. An investigation might stop abruptly if the subject of it resigns. A 2019 paper examining investigations by institutions after the retraction of 12 clinical-trial papers by one research group stated that although investigations lasted for between 8 and 17 months, they did not examine preclinical papers from this group even after receiving detailed, serious concerns about them (A. Grey et al. Res. Integr. Peer Rev. 4, 3; 2019).