CMAJ calls for “new mechanisms to ensure academic integrity”

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A while back I posted a link to Retraction Watch, a website that reports on research papers being retracted (e.g., due to the science contained within them being fraudulent). Well, yesterday an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) tackled this topic – specifically, they called for “new mechanisms to ensure academic integrity.” As they point out, currently the responsibility for investigating accusations of academic integrity – whether they come from a journal or from someone else even before an article is submitted to a journal – lies with the researchers’ academic institution “despite the inherent conflict of interest of doing so when they are also concerned with academic reputation, high-profile faculty and the imperative to keep grant and sponsorship money flowing.” Journals may be well-placed to detect some forms of academic misconduct, given that they are reviewing the research that was done, but they don’t have any way to sanction authors who are found to be guilty of misconduct (short of not publishing their work, but there is nothing stopping the researcher from simply submitting to another journal).

Some of the suggestions given in the editorial included:

  • while a recent Canadian Council of Academies report called for more education about academic misconduct, we need to go further and actually have enforcement and discipline for cheating authors.
  • accusations should be investigated by an independent body (e.g., perhaps the Tri-Council Panel on Research Ethics could be given this mandate?), not by the researchers’ own institution.
  • this independent body needs to have the power to require researchers to appear before it and should publish the names of anyone found guilty of academic misconduct
  • the cost of the independent body should be shared by the federal government (as they need to protect the public) and academic institutions (as they need to be held responsible for their employees).

Two things about this article jump out at me as salient to our discussions here on the Black Hole. First, as the article mentions, is the notion that the pressure to publish – to publish big important findings in big important journals – is relentless for academics, whose livelihoods and career progression depend on those publications, which one can see leading to academic misconduct, from embellishing the role of a researcher to get their name on a publication to outright falsifying data. The second is the importance of the public being able to trust in researchers. After all, decisions about public policy (like health care, the environment, etc.) are (hopefully) based on research findings, so we need to be able to trust that those findings are authentic. Having some sort of independent agency to conduct investigations into academic integrity issues could go a long way in terms of being transparent and accountable.

Related article: “Canada must fix ‘awful’ academic-integrity system: experts” (Vancouver Sun)

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About Beth

In the last year of her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry (with a minor in Drama) at McMaster University, Beth fell in love with the field of nutrition, so she went to the University of Guelph to do a MSc in Nutritional Sciences and then to the University of British Columbia to do a PhD in Human Nutrition. After earning her PhD in 2006, she decided that a career in academia was not for her, so she spent two years running a research training program in gender and addictions at an independent centre for research, policy and knowledge translation and now works as an Evaluation Specialist in Public Health in the lower mainland of Vancouver, as well as doing some contract work as a consultant. She hasn’t completely unplugged from academia though, as she teaches as a sessional instructor at UBC and the Justice Institute of BC. In her spare time, she can be found playing (and watching) hockey, running or blogging.
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