Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents

6 Publication ethics and research integrity

227.  A US National Academies report explained that, for the individual researcher, integrity embodies a range of good research practice and conduct, including:

  • intellectual honesty in proposing, performing, and reporting research;
  • accuracy in representing contributions to research proposals and reports;
  • fairness in peer review;
  • collegiality in scientific interactions, including communications and sharing of resources;
  • transparency in conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest;
  • protection of human subjects in the conduct of research;
  • humane care of animals in the conduct of research; and
  • adherence to the mutual responsibilities between investigators and their research teams.[398]

The procedures for dealing with many of these areas are covered by publication ethics policies.

228.  Peer review does not explicitly assess the integrity of research; nonetheless it has an important role to play. The UK Research Integrity Office Ltd (UKRIO) states in its Code of Practice that:

Organisations and researchers should be aware that peer review is an important part of good practice in: the publication and dissemination of research and research findings; the assessment of applications for research grants; and in the ethics review of research projects.[399]

The publication and dissemination of research findings is the method by which scientific knowledge progresses. Furthermore, the accurate reporting of scientific results is important in informing public debate on scientific issues.

Public debate and trust in science

229.  The London Mathematical Society stated that "public debate should be based on facts. Peer reviewed science is a source of facts".[400] Dr Robert Parker, Interim Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), doubted that the general public have much of a perception of peer review.[401] He explained that "they have a perception of science, that scientists do experiments and that they publish them. They probably don't really care that much about peer review".[402] The Institution of Engineering and Technology added that "the majority of the public does not ever access peer reviewed scientific papers".[403] However, John Wiley & Sons explained that:

Sense About Science […] has shown the importance of public awareness of peer review, as has the Science Media Centre […] in briefing the media. Publishers like to see their peer reviewed articles quoted by the media and encourage this through press releases and agencies.[404]

These are generally the means by which peer-reviewed research findings are communicated to the general public.

230.  Sense About Science told us that:

people can get very worried and frustrated by conflicting claims and misleading information. It is not possible (nor desirable) to prevent people from encountering a wide range of information about science and health on the Internet and in the news media. […] "Is it peer reviewed?" is the first question anyone can ask to determine the status of the evidence, and one that can help the public weigh-up the claims they are presented with. Understanding the process through which scientific research starts to be scrutinised and evaluated can be a helpful tool for the public to sift information and understand its status.[405]

231.  Sense About Science has carried out an enormous amount of work to improve the public understanding of peer review (see paragraph 5), including producing, as we have noted, a short public guide to the peer-review process, I don't know what to believe… Making sense of science stories, of which "hundreds of thousands of copies have been downloaded".[406] This encourages people to ask whether or not a piece of published research has been peer reviewed. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, explained that this is beginning to "take off" as part of a "virtuous circle":

If, in a Radio 2 programme in the afternoon, the interviewer is equipped to ask the scientist […] "Which of these claims has been published and peer reviewed? Do you have a study that backs this up?", the more that question gets asked, the more the listening audience expects that to be one of the interrogatory questions. The more that the listening audience expects that to be an interrogatory question, the more the radio interviewer feels that they, representing their listening public, must ask that question.[407]

232.  The Institute of Physics (IOP) was also of the view that the public should be encouraged to recognise that a peer-reviewed result was the "gold standard" in research and that it would "produce the most reliable information in the long term".[408] The Royal Society added that "peer review is valuable in informing the public about science as it acts as a 'kite mark' that a piece of research has been properly scrutinised and validated by scientists".[409]

233.  In the absence of peer review, the Academy of Medical Sciences warned that:

Work that is released in to the public domain without some level of quality assurance could potentially lead to situations where imperfect or incorrect science is used by the media and others. Ultimately this could be detrimental to the public's overall trust in research.[410]

234.  The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) indicated that this was particularly a problem in biomedical sciences.[411] The Society for General Microbiology considered that "the unreliability of other information published outside of the peer review system should be highlighted".[412]


235.  While information published without peer review may not be reliable or be based on opinion rather than facts, it is not necessarily the case that all information published with peer review is completely reliable. Professor John Pethica, Physical Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society, considered that "it would be useful if the public becomes aware of the fact that mistakes happen".[413] The RSC stated that the "limitations" of peer-reviewed information is not often understood by the public:

There is still currently a public preoccupation with scientific research providing "answers". A single piece of research rarely provides a definitive answer to a scientific problem. Rather a single piece of research must be viewed in the overall context of the field, as it contributes to the overall debate in a given area. Whilst this distinction is made by other researchers in the field, this is not often the case when a piece of research is examined in the public arena.[414]

ALPSP agreed that it was a "common misconception" that a "single published article provides the definitive answer to a scientific problem".[415] It is possible that within a particular field of research, different articles in the peer-reviewed literature may disagree with one another; there is often room for debate on the results themselves and on their interpretation.[416] In such cases, one needs to look at the balance of evidence; each published article must be considered in the wider context of the field.[417] In assessing the balance of evidence, it is necessary to be wary of, for example, the competing interests of different authors—the procedures for declaring these are governed by publication ethics.

Detecting ethical misconduct

236.  Publication ethics covers a number of areas, including: authorship, plagiarism, fabrication, duplicate publication, competing financial interests and confidentiality.[418] Dr Michaela Torkar and Dr Mark Patterson explained that both BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science (PLoS) take publication ethics "very seriously".[419] It is common for publishers to set out guidelines to authors. Dr Parker, from the RSC, told us that the guidelines produced by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) are "pretty much an industry standard now".[420] COPE is a UK registered charity that promotes integrity in research publication and advises journal editors how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct. It provides a forum for editors and publishers of peer-reviewed journals to discuss specific, anonymised cases. It also publishes a wide range of guidance material.[421]

237.  The publication of fraudulent or incorrect papers "damages the public perception of science as a whole".[422] Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, agreed and added that "you cannot build a world that is immune to fraudsters. […] We have to accept that that is the case and hope that we have systems that detect [misconduct] as early as possible".[423] She explained that:

It would be unreasonable to ask reviewers to spot fraud or plagiarism on a systematic basis, although, of course, there are cases where reviewers are quite well placed to notice such things. Their main consideration is whether the paper is valid, significant and original and whether it provides the basis on which others can understand what has taken place and, therefore, replicate or investigate those results.[424]

238.  Critics of peer review claim that it does nothing to detect fraud and misconduct.[425] The RSC stressed that "it is not the role of peer review to scrutinise laboratory practice".[426] However, Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature and Nature Publishing Group, considered that on rare occasions misconduct can be detected:

Given that editors and peer-reviewers need to take everything that authors submit on trust, and do not seek to replicate the work, it is almost impossible for referees to detect misconduct. There have been occasions where a sharp-eyed referee has detected an inconsistency or other flaw in reported results that can only have arisen through inappropriate manipulation, but these are few and far between.[427]

239.  Dr Parker agreed that the "peer review system relies on people being ethical".[428] He added that if misconduct is not picked up by the reviewer and the article is published, "it should be picked up by a reader and then it is usually dealt with either by the reader coming to the editor of the journal or the reader going directly to the author and dealing with the matter".[429]

240.  Professor Ian Walmsley, from University of Oxford, added that co-authors need also take on some of the responsibility for detecting misconduct:

As more and more papers are published with joint authors there is joint responsibility for doing that. That could lead in two directions: first, increased pressure to get it right because there are more people involved in the discussion; but, secondly, the chance that you will miss a trick or two because there are more people contributing.[430]

Indeed, Dr Philip Campbell told us that "in some of the most severe cases of misconduct, a problem has arisen because of insufficient critical scrutiny between co-authors".[431]


241.  In addition to the vigilance of the people involved in the peer-review process, publishers are increasingly relying on technology to help identify certain types of misconduct.

242.  Dr Liz Wager, Chair of COPE, told us that publishers are able to use tools such as CrossCheck, which is "very powerful text-matching software" that identifies duplication (with work already published).[432] Whether plagiarism (the use of someone else's writing or ideas without giving them credit for this, i.e. effectively, stealing) has occurred has, however, to be determined by a human being, and this is not always easy. Robert Campbell, Senior Publisher at Wiley-Blackwell, explained that:

Duplication is also a problem where English is the second or third language. Authors are more inclined to copy text as it gets their message over much more easily than they can by re-writing it. […] publishers have set up a system called CrossCheck for picking up duplication. That is being taken up at a good speed. About 20,000 submissions a month are now being processed through CrossCheck. By the end of this year, about 10% of all submissions will be scrutinised through CrossCheck for duplication, which can mean plagiarism.[433]

243.  Data or image manipulation is another area where technology is proving useful. Dr Wager pointed out that while "the software has […] made it easier to commit the fraud in the first place, it has also made it easier to detect it".[434] Professor Ron Laskey, Vice President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, told us that "in practice many journals now routinely examine the data files to see how the images were prepared".[435] He added that "you rarely hear about those [cases] because the journal simply declines to deal with that author in future".[436] One recent example that had been more widely publicised was the case of the American Society for Microbiology, which "retracted several papers by a Japanese researcher because of image manipulation and [then] issued a 10-year ban on the author from publishing in any of its journals".[437]

244.  The integrity of the peer-review process can only ever be as robust as the integrity of the people involved. Ethical misconduct damages peer review and science as a whole. Although peer review is not designed to identify systematically fraud or misconduct, it does, on occasion, identify suspicious cases. Where ethical misconduct is suspected, guidance for journal editors is in place, for example from the Committee on Publication Ethics, about how best to deal with it. In addition to relying on the vigilance of the people involved in the process, publishers must continue to invest in new technology that helps to identify wrongdoings.


245.  Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of the medical journal, The Lancet, told us that:

editors have had to face an upsurge in the discovery of episodes of research misconduct (fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism). The increasing awareness of research fraud had led not only to greater vigilance […] among editors but also to the birth of institutional mechanisms to set standards and advise on research practice.[438]

246.  COPE considered that "misconduct by reviewers and editors is probably rare but can have serious effects on those affected and is recognised as a form of academic misconduct".[439] Dr Wager, from COPE, added:

I don't think there has been much research on the integrity of reviewers or editors. Much more research has focused on misconduct by authors. There have been some cases of reviewer misconduct. […] I have done a survey of journal editors to find out how big a problem they thought reviewer misconduct was, and it came pretty low on their list.[440]

247.  There is evidence of misconduct by researchers. A large survey of several thousand early and mid career scientists based in the USA and funded by the National Institutes of Health in 2002 revealed a broad range of serious and questionable research misbehaviours, including: falsifying research data, plagiarism, failing to disclose relevant commercial interests, and inappropriately assigning authorship credit. Around a third admitted they had engaged in at least one of the top ten misbehaviours (those seen as likely to be sanctionable at institutional or federal level) during the previous three years.[441] There are not to our knowledge any comprehensive published data on the incidence of research or publication misconduct in the UK.

The need for transparency

248.  In cases of misconduct where the behaviour of the people involved in the peer-review process is called into question, it is essential that there is an accurate record of what was said and done at every step of the process. The availability of this "pre-publication history" to journals was considered to be essential by Dr Mark Patterson, from PLoS; he explained that:

any reputable publisher has to have those kinds of records. These days there are standard systems which support the editorial process and provide the mechanisms you need to archive and keep all that correspondence.[442]

249.  He clarified that the records were not publicly available, but were important for "internal record keeping":

You need them if a dispute occurs two or three years later about some aspect of priority in terms of who discovered what and when or there are some shenanigans in the peer review process that people want to investigate. They are also a fabulous tool to help support the editorial process, in the sense that if you get a new manuscript in a certain area you can then go back, it reminds you of something and you can rediscover what went on. That can help you with the editorial process on a new manuscript.[443]

250.  Dr Michaela Torkar added that in a series of BioMed Central's medical journals the pre-publication history was publicly available, allowing people to access "what the peer reviewer said and how the manuscript was revised".[444] Dr Patterson indicated that this was common amongst medical journals.[445] Dr Torkar explained that this was probably an historical decision.[446] She added that:

we feel in the medical community there is more acceptance of a very transparent model like this. [...] It certainly has no negative impact on the peer review process and it makes it all quite transparent. It is not clear that the biology community would be quite as open to this model, but there are also experiments going on with different journals and different publishers to look at that.[447]

As noted in paragraph 97, other groups are encouraging the more widespread adoption of these transparent processes.

Taking action on mistakes, fraud and misconduct

251.  When ethical misconduct takes place or mistakes are made there must be consequences. The IOP told us that:

if/when incorrect results make it into the literature there are systematic mechanisms in place to correct errors and maintain a record of any corrections. In publishing this is done by the use of corrigenda, retractions or comments and replies, all of which can be linked back to the source article maintaining an updated record of changes.[448]

Robert Campbell, from Wiley-Blackwell, explained how new technology is helping to link retractions or corrections to published articles for a more robust scientific record:

The [publishing] industry is developing [...] a new project called CrossMark. Every paper that has gone through the peer review process has the ongoing stewardship of the publisher picking up on retractions or corrections. By clicking on to the CrossMark logo, you can go to the metadata and find out if there have been any updates or even retractions. That is a technical solution which is being launched this year.[449]

252.  Dr Wager, from COPE, explained that these are other potential consequences when misconduct is discovered:

If the editor really steps out of line, they can lose their editorial position. Obviously, that would be quite public.

In terms of reviewer misconduct, which is relatively rare but does occur, initially, they might well be sanctioned by their employer. [...] There could be an academic or employment case against them because that would be seen as professional misconduct.[450]

253.  Dr Fiona Godlee, from BMJ Group, told us that the consequences "depend on the ethical breach".[451] She stated that:

If it was a plagiarism, then the paper might be retracted or there might be a statement of the offence. The institution would be informed. The author would be penalised via the institution. If it was a duplicate publication or a conflict of interests that was undeclared, all of these things have very straightforward remedies both through the journal and through the institution. The understanding of how to deal with what are now pretty standard ethical breaches is very well developed. More difficult is [the situation] where institutions or journals fail to pursue something adequately.[452]


254.  Where there is doubt over the appropriate course of action following a breach in ethical conduct, advice is available from a number of sources. As we discussed in paragraph 236, COPE provides guidance and advice to journal editors. It was "established in 1997 by a small group of medical journal editors in the UK but now has over 6,000 members worldwide from all academic fields".[453] In 2006, another body—the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO)—was set up to "provide assistance to researchers, research organisations and members of the public" on issues relating to research integrity.[454]

255.  Dr Wager, Chair of COPE, explained that though there are some overlaps between COPE and UKRIO, they have "subtly different audiences"; broadly speaking COPE advises journals and is looking at publication ethics, and UKRIO advises institutions and looks at all kinds of research misconduct.[455] While this distinction is clear, the oversight of research integrity appears to have become more complicated; Research Councils UK (RCUK) told us that Universities UK (UUK) are producing "a "Concordat" style document setting out principles on research integrity to which research funders can all sign up".[456] UUK will be "working closely with RCUK, the UK Funding Councils, the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health" on this.[457]

256.  It appeared to us that the oversight of research integrity in the UK is confused. We set out here our understanding of the existing arrangements. UKRIO was set up "primarily with a remit for the biomedical sciences".[458] A number of UK organisations with interests in research came together to set up, fund and support UKRIO, including:

the four UK Departments of Health, the four UK Higher Education Funding Councils, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the Association of UK University Hospitals, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Committee on Publication Ethics, the Medical Research Council, the Medical Schools Council, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, Research Councils UK, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the Royal Society, Universities UK and research charities including the Wellcome Trust.[459]

257.  UKRIO had been "set up on a fixed-term basis".[460] In its initial pilot phase, 2006-10, it was hosted by UUK.[461] In late 2010, UKRIO transferred from UUK and became a company limited by guarantee, UK Research Integrity Office Ltd (which continued to be known as UKRIO).[462] Since then, UKRIO has continued to provide "independent and confidential advice to researchers, research organisations and the public".[463] UKRIO's original funding has lapsed but because it was run at a surplus in its first phase, these funds are currently sustaining the organisation as it evolves.[464]

258.  In September 2010, RCUK and UUK published The Report of the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group. The working group had been set up to consider the existing arrangements for research integrity in the UK and potential new arrangements from 2010 onwards.[465] The report recommended:

The UK and its employers of researchers would benefit from a single body to provide guidance and advice across the many universal issues that are common to all research disciplines. This would be more efficient than current disparate approaches, and beneficial to organisations both in terms of management and representation. A clear repository for leadership, but not regulation, would also be more effective across the UK. This would not obviate the need for actions relevant only to certain disciplines, research designs or sectors.

Such a national body would not have powers of regulation or investigation powers into poor practice or misconduct, but should be there to provide advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders. This would be achieved through assistance with the promotion of training and good management systems, and providing expert advice where appropriate. A national body should, however, do this on behalf of all major research employers and with the active support of all research funders, to ensure consistency of approach and advice available.[466]

This recommendation has not been implemented.

259.  We asked Professor Rick Rylance, from RCUK, whether he was broadly supportive of this concept. He told us that RCUK wanted:

a framework that is applicable in its different modes to different sorts of projects and disciplines. The situation in the old [UKRIO] was that it was only affecting a part of the community. Increasingly, there are cross-disciplinary projects which need attention across the piece. That is our anxiety.[467]

Indeed, we had heard reports that not all of UKRIO's original funders were happy with its remit being extended to other sciences.[468] However, UKRIO subsequently contacted us to inform us that in practice, since its inception it has "responded to enquiries on issues of research integrity across all subject areas and [its] published guidance is applicable to all disciplines".[469]

260.  In addition to concerns about broadening the oversight of research integrity to all disciplines, Professor Rylance also expressed his concern about the need to "disentangle" various functions which were "caught up" in the original UKRIO.[470] He questioned whether one could be "both an assurer and an adviser" on issues of research integrity.[471] Professor Rylance added "if you are giving advice which then turns out to be wrong, you would then be policing your own mistake at some level".[472] However, UKRIO told us that it had not been created to deliver an "assurance mechanism".[473]

261.  The Research Integrity Futures Working Group had not seen the separation of advice and assurance functions as an issue: it had recommended that the new national body "should be there to provide advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders".[474] One body, covering all disciplines and providing advice to employers and assurance to funders, is an attractive and straightforward system for the oversight of research integrity. The current situation is highly unsatisfactory. Dr Fiona Godlee, from BMJ Group, told us that "the fact that we don't have a proper research integrity oversight body in the UK is a real scandal".[475] In other countries, there is even more stringent oversight of research integrity. For example, the Office of Research Integrity in the USA has a mandate to oversee institutional investigations of alleged misconduct in publicly funded research.[476] Dr Wager acknowledged that "there has certainly been criticism and people saying, 'We do need a body with more teeth, with some statutory powers'".[477] Professor Ron Laskey considered that the need for a body with statutory powers was "a difficult matter" but that it was "something that does deserve to be looked at".[478] However, Professor Rylance considered that there was "no appetite" for a regulatory body.[479] Professor Sir Adrian Smith, from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), added that "if we can avoid getting into a heavy-handed regulatory framework, most of us would prefer to see if we could do it in another way."[480]

262.  Oversight of research integrity in the UK is in need of revision. The current situation is unsatisfactory. We are concerned that the UK does not seem to have an oversight body for research integrity that provides "advice and support to research employers and assurance to research funders", across all disciplines. The UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group report made sensible recommendations about the way forward for research integrity in the UK. Research Councils UK, Universities UK and the Government should revisit these recommendations and reassess how they can best be implemented.


263.  Regardless of the system of oversight it is clear that, as employers of researchers, the research institutions have a part to play in dealing with research fraud or misconduct. The UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group concluded in its recent report:

While there is an urgent need for a clear and joined-up approach at national level, the working group agreed that the primary responsibility in the UK, as in most other countries, must remain with employers of researchers. This does not only mean universities, but also includes industry and health service trusts/employers as well as national research organisations and institutes.[481]

264.  Sir Mark Walport, from the Welcome Trust, agreed that "the integrity of the research is absolutely intrinsic to the good functioning of the university or the research institute. This is a responsibility that they must have".[482] He added that:

Employers are responsible for the integrity of their employees in all sorts of aspects of life. They are responsible in business for making sure that they do not commit fraud and that the accounting is done well. […] as in health and safety, and all sorts of other aspects, such as the good behaviour of employers in respect of how they deal with students, this is an employer's responsibility. Increasingly, universities are taking [research integrity] very seriously. Of course, you can pick examples of where things go wrong.[483]

265.  While we agree that it is the employer who must take responsibility for research integrity, we questioned who would oversee the employer and make sure that they were doing the right thing. We had already heard that there is "no appetite" for regulation (see paragraph 261). However, expanding on Sir Mark's analogy of employer responsibility for health and safety, we noted that there was an external regulator in this area: the Health and Safety Executive. We put this to Sir Mark and questioned again whether there was a need for regulatory oversight of research integrity. He responded that:

The question is what those statutory powers should be. Ultimately, it is clear that a scientist who has committed some form of scientific fraud, if I can put it that way, should lose their job. Does that then fall under some other regulator? Is it something that the courts should deal with? Probably not very often. In the case of medical research, Andrew Wakefield eventually met his come-uppance at the General Medical Council.[484]

An article written by Andrew Wakefield and twelve co-authors, linking the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, published in 1998, led to a drop in MMR vaccine uptake.[485] An investigative journalist, Brian Deer, exposed that the research was fraudulent after investigating the case over more than seven years.[486] Dr Wakefield was struck off the medical register for "unethical" research rather than scientific fraud, 12 years after the research was published.[487] In this case, Dr Wager, from COPE, explained that there was: "clear evidence that the institution [the Royal Free Hospital] did not fulfil its duty […] It should have done a proper investigation. […] It has now recognised that, and I believe it is looking into their processes".[488] COPE considered that an "important step would be for all UK institutions to appoint a research integrity officer who would act as a point of contact and coordinate investigations".[489]

266.  Dr Wager explained that:

Institutions don't like to proclaim when things go wrong. I would like to campaign for a change, so that rather than a misconduct finding against a university being a black mark, it is seen as a badge of honour. You should say, "Don't go to a university that hasn't had at least one person fired for misconduct, because it means they are not looking for it properly".[490]

267.  While we did not conduct a detailed analysis of university views, of the two university Pro-Vice-Chancellors that appeared before us, neither had come across a case of someone being fired for research misconduct.[491] Despite not having come across a case of misconduct, both Professor Teresa Rees, from the University of Cardiff, and Professor Ian Walmsley, from the University of Oxford, implied that their respective universities had robust internal processes for dealing with such matters.[492] We queried how they could possibly know that their policies were robust, to which Professor Walmsley responded:

I noted that we had not come across cases of fraud in respect of publications. There have certainly been other issues—I will not say it is fraud—associated with ethical conduct of research where we have processes that parallel those we might use for publication, and they have been shown to be effective. In respect of publication I would say that at least within my tenure they are untested, but I think there is good evidence that parallel processes for other issues work.[493]

268.  Where fraud or misconduct has occurred and universities instigate some sort of investigation, another problem that journal editors face is the lack of transparency of proceedings. Dr Wager told us that:

[Journal editors] will go to an institution with an allegation or a suspicion of misconduct and the institution will say, "Oh, we can't tell you. It's confidential." The journal editor may be put in a very difficult position, because if, for example, they have published something, they need to know whether to retract it or whether to publish an expression of concern. That is an area where transparency would be a great advantage. It would also help public confidence. [494]

269.  Professor Walmsley explained the process in place at the University of Oxford for reporting proceedings to external organisations:

The responsibility for investigating [misconduct] lies with the University's most senior officers (in the case of staff members, this is the Registrar; for students, this is the Proctors' Office).

Although the details of such allegations or enquiries are not made publicly available, the University regularly reports externally on allegations and cases of research misconduct, for example to the UK Research Integrity Office, to the US Office of Research Integrity and to Research Councils UK. Where the research in question involves a third party, for example an external funder of research such as the Medical Research Council or the Wellcome Trust, the University is careful to ensure that the third party is kept closely informed of how the case is handled and the outcome of any investigation.[495]

270.  Professor Rylance, from RCUK, added that:

In the 18 months or so that I have been part of the AHRC I have had, perhaps, two or three occasions where relatively minor malpractice has been reported. The institutions involved have acted very readily. There is a working system between the funders and the institutions.[496]

271.  Employers must take responsibility for the integrity of their employees' research. However, we question who would oversee the employer and make sure that they are doing the right thing. In the same way that there is an external regulator overseeing health and safety, we consider that there should be an external regulator overseeing research integrity. We recommend that the Government set out proposals on the scope and powers of such a regulator and consult with the research community and other relevant parties to develop them.

272.  We also recommend that all UK research institutions have a specific member of staff leading on research integrity. Such a person would be a first point of call in case of an ethical breach. Where an investigation subsequently takes place within a research institution, it is essential that the outcome be published.


273.  In addition to the research institutions themselves taking responsibility, a degree of responsibility also lies with the funders of research. David Sweeney, Director for Research, Innovation and Skills at HEFCE, added that "in England, as the charities' regulator for most universities and as a regulator under the [Charities Act 2006], universities are required to report incidents to [HEFCE] and we monitor the way in which they handle incidents".[497]

274.  Sir Mark Walport explained that funders play "a very serious role", adding that:

We take research integrity very seriously as well. It is a grant condition that the work is done properly. From our perspective, in relation to an institution that failed to manage the research integrity properly, we would have to question whether that was an institution at which we could fund research.[498]

275.  We questioned Professor Sir Adrian Smith, from BIS, whether any of the Research Councils had ever withdrawn funding because of fraud or allegations of fraud. We expected the number of incidents to be significant, given the evidence from researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health regarding the frequency of misconduct in the USA (see paragraph 247). However, BIS subsequently wrote to us explaining that there had been "no cases where funding has been withdrawn on the grounds of fraud/misconduct in research".[499] Three proven allegations of scientific misconduct during the last 10 years were highlighted, relating to work funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC):

None of [these] cases has resulted in withdrawal of funding, but all have had sanctions imposed against the individuals concerned.

1.  In 2001 an MRC-funded Clinical Fellow was reprimanded for serious professional misconduct and suspended for a year by the General Medical Council (GMC) for falsifying published data. The Fellow's supervisor was also severely reprimanded by the GMC for not having reacted adequately and promptly.

2.  In 2010/11 there was a case related to manipulation of results and falsification of data (images) by a member of MRC staff.

3.  In 2010/11 there was a case related to falsification of documentation relating to patient consent in a clinical trial supported by an MRC grant.

In the third case, where the allegation was against the Principal Investigator (PI), MRC temporarily transferred the supervision of the grant to another PI while the investigation was ongoing. This transfer was made permanent once the allegation was proven. This case was also reported to the GMC.

MRC decided to continue the funding the grant in the third case for a number of reasons:

  • the recruitment of patients to the trial and collection of biological samples was already complete;
  • there was no risk to patients;
  • the misconduct did not affect the integrity of the data;
  • publication of the results would be possible (having checked patient consent was valid); and
  • the data from the trial would be important to inform clinical practice.

It would have been a waste of public money to terminate the grant as this would have prevented the results being analysed and published.[500]

276.  Considering the evidence published on the frequency of research and publication misconduct amongst researchers in the USA, we would have expected a similar proportion of researchers to be engaged in these misbehaviours in the UK. We are therefore surprised that there have been no cases where funding has been withdrawn on the grounds of fraud or misconduct in research funded by Research Councils in the UK. We recommend that the Research Councils, and other funders of research, reassess the robustness of their procedures for dealing with allegations of research fraud or misconduct, to ensure that they are not falling through the cracks.

398   National Research Council of the National Academies, Integrity in Scientific Research: creating an environment that promotes responsible conduct, 2002, pp 34-5 Back

399   UK Research Integrity Office, UKRIO Code of Practice for Research: Promoting good practice and preventing misconduct, September 2009, para 3.14.1 Back

400   Ev w101, para 4.1 Back

401   Q 40 Back

402   As above Back

403   Ev w89, para 4.4 Back

404   Ev 65, para 4.1 Back

405   Ev 75, paras 9 and 12 Back

406   Ev 74, para 3 [Sense About Science] Back

407   Q 86 Back

408   Ev 93, para 20 Back

409   Ev 103, para 11 Back

410   Ev 133 Back

411   Ev w121, para 31 Back

412   Ev w92, para 4 Back

413   Q 42 Back

414   Ev 98, para 18 Back

415   Ev w121, para 32 Back

416   Ev w101, para 4.2 [London Mathematical Society] Back

417   Ev w121, para 32 [Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers]; and Ev 103, para 12 [Royal Society] Back

418   "Publication ethics", Nature, Back

419   Q 191 Back

420   Q 36 Back

421   Ev 66 [Committee on Publication Ethics]; and "About COPE", Committee on Publication Ethics, Back

422   Q 40 [Professor Ron Laskey] Back

423   Q 83 Back

424   Q 74 Back

425   Ev w120, para 17 [Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers] Back

426   Ev 97, para 11 Back

427   Ev 89, para 60 Back

428   Q 36 Back

429   As above Back

430   Q 236 Back

431   Ev 90, para 61 Back

432   Q 73 Back

433   Q 149 Back

434   Q 73 Back

435   Q 33 Back

436   Q 47 Back

437   Ev 116, para 23 [Elsevier] Back

438   Ev w5, para 15 Back

439   Ev 67, para 4.0 Back

440   Q 74 Back

441   B. C. Martinson and others., Scientists behaving badly, Nature, 2005, vol 435, pp 737-38 Back

442   Q 192 Back

443   Q 193 Back

444   Q 192 Back

445   Q 193 Back

446   Q 195 Back

447   As above Back

448   Ev 91, para 4 Back

449   Q 143 Back

450   Q 77 Back

451   Q 141 Back

452   As above Back

453   "About COPE", Committee on Publication Ethics, Back

454   "About Us", UK Research Integrity Office Ltd, Back

455   Qq 66-68 Back

456   Ev 96, para 2 Back

457   Ev 96, para 4 [Research Councils UK] Back

458   Q 264 [Professor Rick Rylance]; also Qq 33-34 [Professor Ron Laskey] and Ev 126 [UK Research Integrity Office Ltd] Back

459   Ev 128, para 2.4 [UK Research Integrity Office Ltd] Back

460   Q 264 [Professor Rick Rylance] Back

461   Ev 126 [UK Research Integrity Office Ltd] Back

462   As above Back

463   Ev 128, para 2.7 [UK Research Integrity Office Ltd] Back

464   Ev 126 [UK Research Integrity Office Ltd] Back

465   Research Councils UK and Universities UK, Report of the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group, September 2010, p2, Back

466   Research Councils UK and Universities UK, Report of the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group, September 2010, pp 3-4, Back

467   Q 269 Back

468   Q 33 [Professor Ron Laskey] Back

469   Ev 132, para 2 Back

470   Q 264 Back

471   As above Back

472   As above Back

473   Ev 132 Back

474   Research Councils UK and Universities UK, Report of the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group, September 2010, p3, Back

475   Q 141 Back

476   "About ORI", Office of Research Integrity, Back

477   Q 72 Back

478   Q 34 Back

479   Q 270 Back

480   Q 308 Back

481   Research Councils UK and Universities UK, Report of the UK Research Integrity Futures Working Group, September 2010, p3, Back

482   Q 267 Back

483   Q 273 Back

484   Q 274 Back

485   "Health Drop in MMR jabs blamed on media scare", BBC News Online,, 26 June 1998; and "Exposed: Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism fraud", Brian Deer, Back

486   "Exposed: Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism fraud", Brian Deer,; and F Godlee, J Smith and H Marcovitch, Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent, BMJ, 5 January 2011 Back

487   "Dr Andrew Wakefield struck off medical register", Times Online,, 25 May 2010 Back

488   Q 75 Back

489   Ev 68, para 9.0 Back

490   Q 75 Back

491   Qq 236 [Professor Ian Walmsley] and 238 [Professor Teresa Rees] Back

492   Q 240 Back

493   Q 241 Back

494   Q 76 Back

495   Ev 107, para 2 Back

496   Q 276 Back

497   Q 275 Back

498   As above Back

499   Ev 148 Back

500   Ev 148 [Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] Back

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Prepared 28 July 2011