New Uniform Federal Policy on Research Misconduct Offers Researchers Few Safeguards
On 6 December 2000, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued the final, government-wide policy addressing research misconduct. The policy, developed by the National Science and Technology Council, defines research misconduct and establishes basic guidelines for the conduct of fair and timely investigations of alleged or suspected infractions. The policy will apply to federally funded research regardless of where the research is conducted or by whom.
The proposed policy was published for public comment in October 1999. AIBS was among 237 organizations submitting comments on various aspects of the policy. Although AIBS supported the development of a uniform policy, the proposed policy lacked the most basic procedural safeguards to assure that accused researchers would receive fair hearings in a timely manner. The comments submitted by AIBS suggested that OSTP include provisions for fundamental rights such as representation by counsel in all phases of the proceeding and the ability to confront and examine all evidence, including witnesses. AIBS also suggested that the policy include: a time limit for the filing of allegations; a bar on multiple, simultaneous proceedings; a ban on comments to the media and others not involved in the proceeding; and sanctions for false allegations.
The final policy does not incorporate any of these suggestions. Instead, the researcher has few procedural safeguards under the vague and anemic language of the final policy, as seen in the following list of highlights. Agencies will have one year to implement this policy. The full text can be found at http://www.ostp.gov/html/misconduct.html.
Safeguards for Subjects of Allegations
Safeguards for subjects give individuals the confidence that their rights are protected and that the mere filing of an allegation of research misconduct against them will not bring their research to a halt or be the basis for other disciplinary or adverse action absent other compelling reasons. Other safeguards include timely written notification of subjects regarding substantive allegations made against them; a description of all such allegations; reasonable access to the data and other evidence supporting the allegations; and the opportunity to respond to allegations, the supporting evidence and the proposed findings of research misconduct (if any).
Objectivity and Expertise
The selection of individuals to review allegations and conduct investigations who have appropriate expertise and have no unresolved conflicts of interests help to ensure fairness throughout all phases of the process.
Reasonable time limits for the conduct of the inquiry, investigation, adjudication, and appeal phases (if any), with allowances for extensions where appropriate, provide confidence that the process will be well managed.
During the Inquiry, Investigation, and Decision-Making Processes. To the extent possible consistent with a fair and thorough investigation and as allowed by law, knowledge about the identity of subjects and informants is limited to those who need to know. Records maintained by the agency during the course of responding to an allegation of research misconduct are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act to the extent permitted by law and regulation.