GLOBAL: New code to promote academic honesty

New international guidelines and a voluntary code on research integrity are being drawn up as a result of consultations at the Second World Conference on Scientific Integrity held in Singapore on 21-24 July.

The initiative is intended to combat rising incidences of scientific fraud, plagiarism and other research falsification and serve as a "guide for professionally responsible research practices throughout the world".

Clauses include having to report, investigate and punish serious deliberate dishonesty, such as fabrication and plagiarism; and guidelines on authorship of research papers, conflicts of interest and other questionable practices.

Global guidelines are needed because codes of conduct for research drawn up by the European Science Foundation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris do not address the nascent science structures in developing countries or the research aspirations of emerging nations in Asia and Latin America.

"All countries are affected by research integrity so we can no longer bury our heads in the sand. We are all in this together," said Carthage Smith of the international council for Science (ICSU).

Once global principles are accepted, every country can adapt the international code to their national system and build on it, down to the institutions that would implement it, he told SciDev after the conference.

The consultations raised awareness of important cultural differences. Ovid Tzeng, of Taipei's Academia Sinica and a former education minister of Taiwan said: "Culturally, particularly in Asia, people do not want to admit that scientific misconduct takes place, it is hard to talk about it openly."

Ames Dhai, director of the Steve Biko Centre of Bioethics at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said South Africa had no qualms about naming and shaming.

"Academic fraud is taken very seriously in our country. The bottom line is that it is fraud and it is treated as a criminal offence," Dhai said.

A number of countries such as India have no national code of conduct and no government body responsible for scientific integrity.

"It still seems to be a delicate issue in India," said Ashima Anand of the Society for Scientific Values in New Delhi, an independent watchdog that investigates claims of misconduct. "The science bureaucracy seems to prefer to turn a blind eye to major misconduct cases."

The conference, which attracted some 350 researchers and policy-makers, leaders of research funding agencies, university leaders and academic publishers from 58 countries, was timely, since the problem of misconduct appears to be growing.

Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of A*STAR, Singapore's Agency for Science Technology and Research, told the conference that the notion of 'publish or perish' is a very real fear among many budding as well as established researchers, due to the increasing number of researchers across the world.

"Under such intense competition, lapses in research conduct can and do happen. Each time it happens, it has a huge impact not just for the individuals involved, but for institutions and sometimes even the host countries of the research efforts," Lim said.

The conference held consultations on a common definition of misconduct. But even identifying who has led research has become a problem.

Dhai said: "There is a lot of research work being done between countries in Africa and with Western funders, but when it comes to writing and publishing we always find the Western partner wants to be the lead author and we have to follow."

Journal publishers also complained that often from countries such as China or South Korea, the names on submitted papers bore no relation to who had done the research.

Some universities in China have set up centres to examine claims in the wake of a new code drawn up by the China's Ministry of Science and Technology in 2007.

Chinese delegates said steps were also being taken to relieve the pressure on young scientists to publish, which they admitted had led to significant abuses.

"In Asia, more and more universities are trying to excel in science and the governments are putting a lot of money in science and technology [in a bid to become] leaders in the world," said Tzeng. "It becomes a question of 'face' and national pride and they provide monetary rewards, so then we find misconduct."

Universities are complicit because governments allocate money according to commercial rankings, he said.

Smith said the agenda had moved on considerably from the first conference on research integrity held in Lisbon in 2007, when the discussion was about whether there was a problem. Now it was recognised.

However, the final statement will stick to principles, rather than specifying in detail what rules should be put in place. For example China opposes the idea of a nationally enforceable code.

"The policies that implement this agreement can vary widely from country to country and organisation to organisation," Lim told the conference.

* This is an extended version of an article by Yojana Sharma, "Conference agrees global science ethics code", first published by SciDev on 28 July 2010. It is reproduced under creative commons licence.