Research Integrity in the UK – the Spawn of Satan?

In my last post, I quoted Zachary Schrag’s use of a trope from the film, Broadcast News, to argue that ethical regulation in universities exemplified the way that the Devil would do his work by stealth. What should happen last week? A document drops into my inbox that purports to be a draft Concordat between the major UK funders and university managements on research integrity. It seems that publication has already been set for July 2012, but someone belatedly thought that it might be a good idea to get disciplinary associations on board. The result is a six-week consultation period across two public holiday weekends and a university vacation. This does not encourage respect for the consideration that will be given to responses or the integrity of those who have thought this would be adequate.

This process resembles the way in which the academic community was bounced into ethical regulation by the particular concerns of US biomedical sciences, and their indifference to anyone else’s views, as documented by the recent work of Schrag and of Laura Stark. We have already seen something comparable in the dismissive treatment of social science evidence by the Rawlins Report for the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. It has taken 40 years to begin to unscramble the mess created for researchers in other disciplines and other countries by the US approach, through the current review of the Common Rule, and parallel developments in Canada. However, the draft Concordat follows the same model – asserting some uncontentious platitudes and then proposing an elaborate regulatory system to give effect to a particular interpretation of them. If this were a government document in many developed countries, we might expect it to be accompanied by an evidence-based regulatory impact assessment. The Concordat’s authors appear to consider themselves exempt from such mundane obligations.

The first question for an impact assessment would be whether there is a problem to which regulation might be the answer. You will search this draft in vain for any such evidence. As it happens, the reports of the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) do show a relatively small-scale problem in US biomedical research. Is there a problem in other disciplines? Is there a problem in the UK?

A second question might be whether regulation is the right answer to the problem? There is research evidence dating back to Barber and Lally’s work in 1973, for example, that integrity tends to be compromised where there are institutional problems in the assessment and management of performance, and in the distribution of recognition and reward. A regulatory strategy individualizes deviance and places responsibility for investigation in the hands of those organizations that may be creating the problem in the first place. We end up with ‘bad apples’ rather than poor crop management, systemic weaknesses caused by universities and, possibly, research funders. As an enforcement agency, the ORI report cases without much reference to context. Are the contexts of biomedical research in the US and the UK similar enough to assume that behaviour found in the former is necessarily replicated in the latter? Are the ORI data relevant at all to the social sciences and humanities?

A regulatory impact assessment would include a realistic estimate of the costs of the proposed regulation. Will van den Hoonard has suggested that the present system of ethical regulation costs over $432 million per year in the US, Canada, UK and Australia combined, without taking full account of important indirect costs. Policing research integrity is likely to be considerably more expensive. How does this compare with the costs of not regulating? What are the economic losses from not regulating? Is there a proportionate relationship?

Modern regulation also commonly includes a ‘sunset clause’ which specifies that the regulation will lapse on a pre-set date unless clear evidence is presented of its continuing benefit. Many of the problems created by systems of ethical regulation could have been avoided with an explicit provision that they would only continue where they could be proven to be effective. The Concordat is created for eternity.

What is the urgency? Is it a re-run of the ethical regulation story where the UK was bounced by extra-territorial demands from the US? Is it to pre-empt the more deliberative approach of the European Commission to establishing a continent-wide strategy? More importantly, why have these questions apparently not been asked before? The Economic and Social Research Council seems to be fully signed up, despite its purported commitments to evidence-based policy. Is this another case of ESRC playing Little Sir Echo in the hope that it will be taken seriously by the big boys and allowed to join their games? What is Satan spawning this time around?

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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