Published: 07-03-2017 10:00 | Updated: 07-03-2017 11:08

Handling the increase in the number of cases of misconduct in research

2016 saw a dramatic increase in the number of cases of misconduct in research, says Jörgen Svidén, Administrative Director at the Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN). Many cases concerned Karolinska Institutet and Paolo Macchiarini’s research.

Universities and other institutions of higher education investigate cases of misconduct in research themselves. But they can also request an opinion from the Central Ethical Review Board’s expert group when they want an unbiased opinion.

Jörgen Svidén“Normally we deal with two or three cases. In 2016 we received 17, eight of them from Karolinska Institutet. Five concerned Macchiarini in some way,” says Jörgen Svidén.

Anyone who accuses someone of misconduct in research, or is him- or herself accused, can ask the expert group to issue an opinion. They cannot approach the group directly, however, but must go to the vice-chancellor responsible, who in turn can approach the Central Ethical Review Board’s expert group.

Reluctance to handle cases internally

“As a consequence of the Macchiarini case, there has been some reluctance to handle these cases internally. It would be strange otherwise,” says Anders Ekbom, acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Karolinska Institutet since 1 January.

Anders Ekbom also says that the number of cases of misconduct increased markedly during 2016. Some have been able to be dismissed, others have been submitted to the CEPN for an opinion and a few others are still under assessment by KI.

“Our problem is that it takes the central review board a long time to process a case.”

Because the expert group’s members’ workload has increased, the government has decided to enlarge the group with two ordinary members and two substitutes.

“This will also make things easier when it comes to bias. We have two members who are automatically disqualified on the grounds of bias every time anything concerns KI. Even if KI’s two members have not been in the least involved with for example Macchiarini, they do not participate if a case concerns KI. With more members, there is less risk that the group will be too small to issue an opinion,” Jörgen Svidén goes on.

KI makes final decision

The CEPN’s expert group does not make decisions but issues an expert opinion that the university can choose to abide by or reject. For example, the expert group considered that all the researchers involved in one of the Macchiarini cases were guilty of scientific misconduct, whereas in KI’s view only Macchiarini and the four researchers who had had in-depth knowledge of large parts of the process were. KI reasoned that researchers without detailed knowledge of the entire research could not be held responsible.

Jörgen Svidén feels that the fact that it is only the vice-chancellor who can request an opinion from the expert group is a weakness.

“In that respect it’s not entirely safe from a legal point of view. And the fact that a person who has been accused and found guilty cannot approach an authority to appeal is also a problem.

Text: Ann Patmalnieks

More on CEPN
The Central Ethical Review Board is the appeals body for ethical reviews, its main task being to examine appeals from researchers who have been refused leave to appeal by the regional ethical review board.
If the regional ethical review board cannot reach agreement on a case, they can also choose to submit it to the CEPN.
The Central Ethical Review Board also has supervisory responsibility as regards the Ethical Review Act. “There are two occasions where the CEPN exercises supervision,” explains Jörgen Svidén.
“If someone does not have a permit to conduct the research being carried on and if the person conducting the research goes outside the bounds of permit that was granted.”
Proposal for a clearer procedure
On 22 February the government’s special investigator presented her proposal for a new way to handle cases concerning investigation of misconduct in research. The proposal will now be circulated for comment.
The investigation proposes a clearer and legally safer procedure. Among other things, it is proposed that a new authority, the Misconduct Board, take over the task of investigating suspected misconduct in research from the university where the accusation is made. The authority would also take over the duties currently carried out by the Central Ethical Review Board’s expert group.
The report also discusses a uniform definition of scientific misconduct in research. The present lack of such a definition means that different universities can define misconduct in research in their own way – and make decisions as to whether there has been any misconduct on the basis of its own investigation.
Bild på Anders Ekbom.Karolinska Institutet is going to make changes to its own procedure for handling misconduct pending the new legislation. But the provisions of the Higher Education Ordinance still apply; the university itself investigates cases of suspected dishonesty/misconduct once an accusation has been received by the vice-chancellor.
The pro-vice-chancellor says that the internal procedure must be faster, more transparent and safer.
“During the spring we’re going to try to implement a similar procedure to that being proposed by the government, with a KI board to investigate reports of dishonesty. Both the person reporting dishonesty and the person being reported must have greater judicial security,” says acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor Anders Ekbom.

Text: Madeleine Svärd Huss