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Codes of conduct for research integrity: are they fit for purpose?

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (ECoC), first published in 2011 and updated in 2017, aims to harmonise research integrity standards across Europe. The 2017 ECoC is centred around four principles:

  • reliability
  • honesty
  • respect
  • accountability.

Despite the existence of this document, individual countries have their own national guidelines that, in some cases, echo parts of the ECoC, and in other cases, go beyond the ECoC by applying more stringent guidelines or laws. The only principle agreed by all is that fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are research misconduct. A recent article published in Bioethics evaluates the ways in which these divergences may threaten the fairness and credibility of the ECoC.

Professors Hugh Desmond and Kris Dierickx suggest that internationally collaborating researchers may be unfairly subjected to misconduct investigations initiated by an institution they are not affiliated with, in a country they do not live or work in. The 2017 ECoC no longer provides guidance on which countries or institutions should initiate such investigations, creating ambiguity about who is responsible for holding researchers from multiple institutions and/or countries accountable.

More fundamentally, if the key components of research integrity cannot be widely agreed upon and incorporated into different codes, the credibility of these codes may be called into question, reducing the likelihood that researchers will use them to self-regulate. The authors discuss the implications for meaningful codes – those used by regulatory bodies to guide the actual behaviour of researchers – and ‘window dressing’ codes that merely create a perception of valued and regulated ethical behaviour.

If the key components of research integrity cannot be widely agreed upon and incorporated into different codes, the credibility of these codes may be called into question, reducing the likelihood that researchers will use them to self-regulate.

Critics of the analysis note that some countries may be yet to update their policies in response to the 2017 ECoC, and that semantic divergences between the ECoC and national codes of conduct may overestimate the differences in the underlying principles. However, Professors Desmond and Dierickx believe that codes of conduct must be evaluated if these are to achieve the “common understanding of the demands of research integrity” sought by the ECoC. We note that it remains to be seen how ongoing efforts such as the Standard Operating Procedures for Research Integrity (SOPs4RI) initiative might address this issue.

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In your future projects, will you consider the impact of conflicting research integrity codes when deciding whether to collaborate with researchers from different institutions and/or countries?

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