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Medical research misconduct rocks Australian institutions, sparks calls for overhaul

Health Industry Hub | November 13, 2023 |

Medical: The alarm has been raised on the nation’s research sector, emphasising the need for an independent research integrity watchdog. The two-part report by The Australia Institute, which reveals alarming concerns about research misconduct, including data fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, indicates that over the past two decades, more than 500 Australian research papers have been retracted due to reliability concerns.

The absence of a dedicated research integrity watchdog in Australia has been a significant point of contention. Unlike other developed countries, Australia relies on individual research institutions to initiate and oversee investigations into their researchers, a system criticised for its potential biases, lack of transparency and inconsistency.

Dr Monique Ryan, Independent MP for Kooyong and former researcher, passionately supported the establishment of an independent watchdog. She highlighted the potential of a research integrity watchdog not only to eradicate misconduct but also to enhance trust in the sector, ensuring Australia remains a global research powerhouse.

“Before I was a politician, I was a researcher in paediatric neurology, and I’ve seen up close how good research can change the world. Australian researchers are some of the best in the world, but they’re being let down by the sector’s inability to prevent misconduct. We need a research integrity watchdog with teeth. Such a watchdog won’t just stamp out misconduct, it will increase trust in the sector, and give Australia the right settings to remain a research powerhouse,” said Dr Ryan.

The report recommends the establishment of a robust, government-funded research integrity watchdog with investigatory powers. Dr Kristen Scicluna, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Australia Institute, stressed the urgency of re-evaluating Australia’s approach to address research misconduct.

“With over 500 papers by Australian academics retracted over the past two decades, Australia must re-evaluate its approach to addressing research misconduct. In a time of increasing scepticism and uncertainty, it is crucial that Australia meets global standards to enhance public confidence and international trust in its research sector.

“Research misconduct presents risks to patient health, misdirects research funding, and obstructs research progress. It also threatens the reputation of research conducted in Australia. Australia needs to establish a genuinely independent, government-funded regulator to ensure that investigations into research misconduct are carried out in an unbiased and fair way,” asserted Dr Scicluna.

The report delves into four compelling cases of research integrity controversies in Australia, highlighting the need for immediate action. At the University of NSW, allegations were raised regarding misrepresented data leading to clinical trials for a skin cancer drug. At QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, a researcher was found guilty of research misconduct, prompting referral to Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission. Meanwhile, concerns emerged at Swinburne University’s School of Engineering, where a researcher allegedly falsified, duplicated, and plagiarized results, resulting in the retraction of 166 publications. Additionally, Macquarie University’s Centre for Motor Neurone Disease Research faced allegations of using doctored images in articles.

The Research Misconduct in Australia report offers nine key recommendations to establish a world-leading research integrity watchdog. These recommendations, drawing on the analysis of prominent overseas counterparts, aim to strengthen Australia’s current framework with international best practices:

  • Establish a clear and enforceable definition of ‘research misconduct.’
  • Establish a free-standing, government-funded research integrity watchdog with investigatory powers.
  • Make research institutions bound by the findings of the independent watchdog.
  • Establish a network of local research integrity officers based in research institutions but accountable to the watchdog.
  • Allow complainants to directly report suspected misconduct to the independent watchdog.
  • Provide educational resources and mandatory training about research integrity.
  • Make all reports of research misconduct publicly available.
  • Reintroduce a proper appeal process.
  • Create whistleblower protections.

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