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Research integrity: putting principles into practice

Misconduct in medical research has the potential to mislead the scientific community which, in the worst cases, can have major repercussions on patients. Such misconduct can include fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and the emerging trend for ‘post-production misconduct’. In addition to these examples of scientific fraud, a lack of transparency, reproducibility and replicability in medical publications may also affect research integrity.

While there have been several key declarations on the principles of research integrity (such as European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity) occasional high-profile cases of misconduct still occur. The reasons behind misconduct in medical research have been well documented. As outlined in an editorial by Prof Lee Harvey, it is a long-term problem associated with the immense pressure that researchers are under to publish articles that attract funding, which has led to the so called ‘publish or perish’ mentality. This research environment has been compounded by the traditional citation-based metrics that have long been adopted by the scientific community.

In order to combat misconduct, attention is now turning towards how organisations can translate the principles of research integrity into practice. As highlighted in an editorial by Prof Niels Mejlgaard and colleagues, the EU’s next research funding programme will confirm a strong commitment to research integrity. The authors note:

“It is expected that institutions receiving funding from the €81-billion (US$96-billion) programme will be required to have clear plans and procedures in place for research integrity

To evaluate which topics should be addressed by organisations in their plans to promote research integrity, Mejlgaard et al conducted a study called Standard Operating Procedures for Research Integrity (SOPs4RI). They identified nine key areas that should be considered:

  • Research environment: ensure fair assessment procedures and prevent hypercompetition and excessive publication pressure.
  • Supervision and mentoring: create clear guidelines and set up training and mentoring for PhD supervisors.
  • Integrity training: establish training and counselling for researchers.
  • Ethics structures: establish review procedures that accommodate different types of research.
  • Integrity breaches: formalise procedures that protect whistle-blowers and those accused of misconduct.
  • Data practices and management: provide training, incentives and infrastructure to curate and share data according to FAIR principles.
  • Research collaboration: establish rules for transparent working with industry and international partners.
  • Declaration of interests: state conflicts in research, review and other professional activities.
  • Publication and communication: respect authorship guidelines and ensure openness and clarity in public engagement.

Research integrity recommendations together with procedures and other resources are accessible through the SOPs4RI website. Over the next few years these will be refined; the authors urge readers to provide views, concerns, and example of best practice to help tailor these resources. While the vast majority of research is undoubtedly honest, tools and resources such as those highlighted by SOPs4RI, may be needed to help organisations implement integrity principles and improve research.

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Summary by Josh Lilly PhD from Aspire Scientific

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With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd


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