What is research misconduct and why it matters for open science

I have recently come across some discussion concerning the concept of research misconduct and whether withholding data falls into the category. While not sharing data when publishing research results is definitely problematic behavior in my books, I wouldn’t go as far as calling it research misconduct. I have two reasons for this opinion: firstly, withholding data does not tick the boxes of research misconduct according to the current guidelines on research integrity, and secondly, it would do no good to the open science cause to start labelling unwanted, but highly common practices, as “outlawed”.

1. Research misconduct according to responsible conduct of research (RCR) guidelines

The most influential international RCR guidelines are the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity, which is global in scope, and The European Code of Conduct on Research Integrity. The European code precedes the Singapore Statement by a hair. It was launched at the Second World Conference on Research Integrity in July 2010, the same event that gave birth to the Singapore Statement. The two documents are very much in concert, addressing same issues on different levels, the Singapore Statement being more general, while the European code goes further into detail, f. e. on how to organize the handling on misconduct in research institutions.

The Singapore Statement determines research misconduct as follows: “11. Reporting Irresponsible Research Practices: Researchers should report to the appropriate authorities any suspected research misconduct, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, and other irresponsible research practices that undermine the trustworthiness of research, such as carelessness, improperly listing authors, failing to report conflicting data, or the use of misleading analytical methods.

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity relies on the same definition of misconduct, often called the FFP categorization (fabrication, falsification, plagiarism), giving the following content to the trinity, plus creating an additional basket for the miscellaneous stuff:

Research misconduct can appear in many guises:

  • Fabrication involves making up results and recording them as if they were real;
  • Falsification involves manipulating research processes or changing or omitting data [it is added in the chapter 1.4 Good Research Practices that “Unjustified claims of authorship and ghost authorship are forms of falsification.”];
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of other people’s material without giving proper credit [it is again added in the chapter 1.4 Good Research Practices that “An editor or reviewer who purloins ideas commits plagiarism.”];
  • Other forms of misconduct include failure to meet clear ethical and legal requirements such as misrepresentation of interests, breach of confidentiality, lack of informed consent and abuse of research subjects or materials. Misconduct also includes improper dealing with infringements, such as attempts to cover up misconduct and reprisals on whistleblowers;
  • Minor misdemeanours may not lead to formal investigations, but are just as damaging given their probable frequency, and should be corrected by teachers and mentors.

The code also tells us what research misconduct isn’t: “Research misconduct should not include honest errors or differences of opinion. Misbehaviour such as intimidation of students, misuse of funds and other behaviour that is already subject to universal legal and social penalties is unacceptable as well, but is not ‘research misconduct’ since it does not affect the integrity of the research record itself.

The Finnish guidelines, although not as well-known or influential as the ones mentioned above, are one of the oldest RCR guidelines in place, the first version being published in 1994, and therefore in my view of interest here as well, especially since they make one addition to the familiar FFP categorization of research misconduct: misappropriation. The Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland document determines misappropriation as something that “refers to the unlawful presentation of another person’s result, idea, plan, observation or data as one’s own research.” Here the Finnish guidelines go further in safeguarding research outcomes then the (Finnish) copyright law, according to which ideas don’t have ownership and are fair game. (So, for example if you were thinking of taking my research plan and using the ideas for your own research, it wouldn’t be criminal, but still a research misconduct. Also, you would be making me disappointed. Not angry, but just very very disappointed in you.)

The Finnish guidelines have also this to say about misconduct: “Research misconduct refers to misleading the research community and often also to misleading decision-makers.” I find it as a slight shortcoming that the general public is not mentioned here together with decision-makers. Broadly reported research results can directly affect people’s life choices, (just think of the potential impact of a headline such as “Breaking: 300 g of salt-licorice a day dramatically reduces risk of cancer!” This example is a little Finland specific, I admit.) But let’s move on.

2. RCR guidelines on openness and responsible data management

None of the documents directly refers to the concept open science, which doesn’t mean that they are anti-open, just that the term is a relatively recent invention.

The Singapore Statement demands data sharing, sort of: “5. Research Findings: Researchers should share data and findings openly and promptly, as soon as they have had an opportunity to establish priority and ownership claims.” So in principle data should be shared, but the mention of establishing priority and ownership claims gives a back-door to those not so keen on sharing. It could be read so, that if you have even the slightest idea that you might one day want to use your data for another research / publication, it is okay to hold on to it.

The European Code of Conduct on Research Integrity uses stronger terms when speaking about openness and data sharing, which makes sense, since it is meant for a narrower audience then the Singapore Statement and therefore the text doesn’t need to please all and everyone. Also the European Commission was quite positive about open access already at that time (five years ago), f. e. implementing an open access pilot and funding OpenAIRE in FP7. The Code mentions openness and accessibility as one of the principles of integrity in scientific and scholarly research. The text goes on to state that “Objectivity requires facts capable of proof, and transparency in the handling of data. Researchers should be independent and impartial and communication with other researchers and with the public should be open and honest.

The Code encourages data sharing:

  1. Data: All primary and secondary data should be stored in secure and accessible form, documented and archived for a substantial period. It should be placed at the disposal of colleagues. The freedom of researchers to work with and talk to others should be guaranteed.

Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it. It is, because the above mentioned point is made in a portion of the text that lists things that should be taken into consideration when drafting national guidelines, since, according to the document, some issues may be subject to cultural differences and cannot therefore be incorporated into a universal code of conduct. In other words it’s an additional suggestion, not part of the codes core.

Where do the Finns stand on all things open and data? Here: “2. The methods applied for data acquisition as well as for research and evaluation, conform to scientific criteria and are ethically sustainable. When publishing the research results, the results are communicated in an open and responsible fashion that is intrinsic to the dissemination of scientific knowledge.”, and here: ”4. The researcher complies with the standards set for scientific knowledge in planning and conducting the research, in reporting the research results and in recording the data obtained during the research.” In addition there is the following mention under the headline “Disregard for the responsible conduct of research”: “inadequate record-keeping and storage of results and research data”.

The Finnish guidelines differ from the two international ones in one important aspect, besides the obvious international-national scale difference. The Finnish document is binding to a significant proportion of the nation’s scientific community. Not legally binding, but morally, since a majority of Finnish research institutions have willingly and knowingly committed themselves to following the guidelines by undersigning the document. That is why the text is vaguish referring at points to matters of consensus, like “principles that are endorsed by the research community”, “scientific criteria” and “standards set for scientific knowledge”, without defining them explicitly in the text. This means that the guidelines can be subject to change without the necessity of rewriting them. If the common understanding on, say responsible data management, shifts among the research community, the guidelines give opportunity for a new way of reading. I think this room for interpretation is a good thing, since it creates flexibility and makes the principles dynamic, since they have to, to an extent, be discussed and evaluated at research institution level with each new misconduct investigation.

3. Why determining withholding of data as misconduct would be a bad move for open science

A commentator named David Gibbens describes the conceptual situation well in the comment thread of a blog post discussing whether data secrecy is a misconduct or not: “[…] I think it is important to distinguish between two different aspects that are being slighly (sic) blurred. One is integrity: the other is competence or quality. ‘Misconduct’ must refer to integrity; competence or quality is another matter. So in the middle category of ‘questionable research practices’ there is a big difference between sloppy statistics and ‘inappropriate research design’ (quality) and ‘lying about authorships’ (integrity).

Words can of course always be given new content. It can happen on purpose or organically. The latter has not happened, at least not yet, and I don’t think we should advocate the former either. In my view the misconduct definition should only apply for acts that have affected both a) the research record and b) the integrity of the research, as opposed to quality, just like the situation is currently.

I understand that those in favor of open science, and that includes me too, would like to see un-open practices condemned and discouraged. For that we need arguments and tools, the stronger and sharper the better. But broadening the scope of research misconduct would only make it weaker as a tool. I am not an expert on law, but I have understood that it is generally not recommended to put in place laws that would be widely broken and therefore not efficiently enforced. Laws like that make the number of criminals rise instead of increasing order, and in the process lessen the authority of other laws as well, even the entire legal system. I think the analogy is valid even though research integrity is in most places a matter of research community’s self-regulation rather than a legal issue.

Then there is the carrot or the stick point of view to the matter: should researchers be forced or encouraged into data sharing. I tend to always be in favor of the carrot, whatever the situation, since I think it produces better results with more longevity. The research environment should support and reward sharing, which is currently not the case. By calling withholding data a research misconduct we would be simply blaming individuals for the shortcomings of the system. The situation is more aggravating if a researcher has promised to share data and then fails to do so, but the RCR guidelines offer plenty of categories other than misconduct for that kind of behavior.

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