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The importance of responsible conduct of research

Published: 30 August 2021

On 1 January 2020, the Act on responsibility for good research practice and the examination of research misconduct (Act 2019: 504) came into effect. For the first time, the concept of misconduct in research was defined in Swedish law. The law clarifies that it is the researcher who is responsible for following good research practice in his or her research, while the university has the overall responsibility for ensuring that the research is carried out in accordance with good research practice.

On 1 January 2021, The National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (Npof) was formed. The Board took over responsibility from the higher education institutions for investigating suspicions of serious deviations from good research practice in three areas: fabrication, forgery and plagiarism committed intentionally or as a result of gross negligence. Other types of deviations from good research practice are still being tested by the higher education institutions themselves.

Scientific quality, good research practice and research misconduct are all related concepts that are constantly debated within academia. Its practical expression is assessed and evaluated continuously by colleagues in different contexts and according to different quality assurance systems. Few things are worse for a researcher than questioning her scientific quality and actions. When this happens in high-profile cases, it can also have serious consequences for the university and its credibility.

Confidence in research

The creation of both the law and the board is clarity regarding the concept of misconduct in research as well as increased legal certainty, uniformity, transparency and legitimacy. In other words, contribute to good research practice and that confidence in Swedish research is maintained.

I recently received Npof's first annual report on my desk. I want to start by highlighting some statistics. Of 46 cases, 4 resulted in a conviction decision, 10 in an acquittal decision, 11 in a decision on rejection (the board considers the report to be clearly unjustified), and 21 cases that have not yet been decided. It is therefore very important to clearly distinguish between a report and a conviction decision.

Fabrication and plagiarism were the most common cases with 18 reports each, followed by 10 reports for fabrication and 10 cases that did not concern any of the three and were therefore outside Npof's area of responsibility. As some reports concerned several suspected deviations, the total sum for deviations is 56 while the number of reports is 46. One of these 46 cases came from LTU.

An interesting observation in the annual report is that relatively many cases that have been tried are outside the board's remit, here personal conflicts and disputes are mentioned that are relatively often linked to the relationship between supervisor and doctoral student and co-authorship issues. The fact that many cases are linked to conflicts concerning co-authorship issues is recognizable in general discussions between academics, internationally and nationally, but also at our own university.

Importance of discussion

The various issues described in the annual report show the importance of discussing, clarifying and deciding already in the planning of a project or a publication how important issues, such as authorship, are to be handled. They also point out the importance of us universities having a lively discourse when it comes to important concepts and how these are expressed in different situations, concepts such as good research practice, plagiarism, falsification and fabrication.

However, it is also important to be well acquainted with what applies within your own subject regarding co-authorship, and to have a dialogue about the difference in responsibility between the role as supervisor and co-author.

At our own university, we have had two research ethics councils and a research ethics committee for almost two years. We have also updated our guidelines for dealing with scientific misconduct .

But it is in dialogue that general, as well as illustrative and concrete, issues are dealt with as understanding and consensus are developed. So let's keep the discussions alive.

Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, Vice-Chancellor of Luleå University of Technology.


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