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Quality and good research practice go hand in hand

Clarity is a useful thing when it comes to promoting good research practice – and everyone benefits from it. The relatively new act and the new governmental agency that oversees it will test that assertion.  But as always, when principle takes precedence over the individual in the quest for good practice, there is the risk of a discordant note being struck. The risk is two-fold: that suspicion is cast on researchers and/or that they find themselves in a difficult position.

There has been a great deal of debate recently on precisely this subject – research misconduct and how it should be assessed.

The 2019 act states that research misconduct is a serious deviation from good research practice in the form of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism that is committed intentionally or through gross negligence when planning, conducting or reporting research.

Since 2020, issues of this nature have to be examined and assessed by the Swedish National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (Npof), under the supervision of the Swedish Ethical Review Authority. Such cases were previously handled by the universities themselves, along with regional ethics committees.

I’m fairly convinced though that education lays the foundation for the careful and prudent use and presentation of facts, and that it is the responsibility of supervisors to set a good example; a responsibility that passes to research team leaders when it comes to reporting results. The passing down of this knowledge clearly from one generation to the next provides vital protection against temptation and short cuts, and emphasises the importance of both individual responsibility and the fact that such matters are a source of great responsibility.

It is, however, every bit as important to put the right conditions in place and provide a work environment that encourages less arrogance and greater humility. When someone aspires to the truth with a capital T, I’m always a little suspicious. I may be credulous, but after 45 years in academia it’s my belief that precious few people are actually in scientific murky waters. I don’t think it’s especially common for a researcher to deliberately mislead. Perhaps, given the passion associated with pursuing qualifications and grants and producing articles, that’s where we should be focusing our attention, without in any way waiving or diminishing individual responsibility. In our quest to deliver results, there isn’t always time to complete important quality assurance processes properly.

Annual surveys conducted by the organisation VA (Public & Science) show that the public tends to have a very high degree of confidence in research. That is something we can protect through robust research quality assurance, and by ensuring that the agency charged with examining research misconduct makes reasonable assessments as to whether or not cases merit further investigation.