Quick thoughts on the new European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

ALLEA, the joint organisation for all European academies (also beyond the EU), has published a new version of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. The previous one came out in 2011 and was co-written by ALLEA and the European Science Foundation (ESF), which has since gone through a major organisational transformation and a change of focus.

I am about to attend a seminar in Finland about the new code (starting in an hour!) and wanted quickly leaf it through, so that I get most out of the discussion. So what I’m about to say are super quick impressions on the document. Should I come to reconsider something after a more thorough reading, I will make sure to post it here.

First of all I am really pleased that data is acknowledged as a research output and that citing data is mentioned as a responsible practice:

• Researchers, research institutions and organisations acknowledge data as legitimate and citable products of research.

So yay for that. Unfortunately that was pretty much the only positive surprise. Beyond the parts on data management the document is very much same old, same old. Which is mostly fine in the sense, that I don’t disagree with anything (or maybe one thing, but I’ll get back to that). What is said is not so much the problem as what is left unsaid or unaddressed.

Citizen science, for one. I see that the European Citizen Science Association is one of the recognised stakeholder parties, good thing. But the traditional dichotomy between a research subject and object is in no way challenged. It is obvious that the researcher assumed in the code is someone with academic training and affiliation in an institution, such as a university or a research institute. There is no mention of co-design or anything like that. Either you are a researcher (or what is called a partner, but I see that hardly applying to individual citizens or f.e. informal networks of citizens) or you are a subject (more like an object in this context). Also the relationship between research and society, and the responsibility that the research community holds towards the society that funds it, is hardly touched upon.

There is of course this:

• Researchers publish results and interpretations of research in an open, honest, transparent and accurate manner, and respect confidentiality of data or findings when legitimately required to do so.

But without defining what is meant by open, this is very weak. There is nothing about translating results to the general public, engaging relevant stakeholders into discussion or trying to make sure that the research has impact beyond the impact factor. I think choices between publishers should be seen as an integrity issue: do you choose to disregard the unsustainable and even straight dishonest practices of some publishers in your quest for publications, or do you choose to go to one of the responsible and open ones. This could apply both to predatory publishers and say, corporations bleeding research communities and hogging ownership of publicly funded research outputs while making bigger profits than the oil industry.

Which brings me to the chapter that frustrates me the most, 2.7. Publication and Dissemination. The perversity of the current academic publishing model coupled with the process of gaining merit is the main threat to research integrity: how journal article is in many, if not in most fields the only way to have research results acknowledged, creating incentives for authorship-fraud, data secrecy and p-hacking, among other things. These are all practices that the code aims at preventing! And still journal article is presented as the default way of disseminating research – without naming it, mind you – with no mention, let alone encouragement, to exploring the plethora of other means provided by the digital environment. I guess it could be argued that since the article is not mentioned as the main type of publication, the code can be applied to all kinds of research outputs in the public space. But just trying to fit this supposed one-size-fits-all T-shirt on data authorship shows that it is just too tight.

To summarize: on the one hand the code is too general, like when it doesn’t acknowledge the paradigm shift of citizen science (BTW, I see that as the real paradigm shift, not open science, as you sometimes hear stated), on the other it’s too specific, like when it addresses article authorship issues, but leaves out data authorship, open collaboration articles, websites, games, you name it.

I would have liked to see bolder and more forward looking stances. Now the document is like a guest late at the party, trying to jump in a conversation that is already moving on to other topics. The code is, rightfully, described as  “a living document that is updated regularly and that allows for local or national differences in its implementation.” The next update cannot come too soon. Hopefully that one will not be outdated since publication.

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