Dr Emma Chapman
12th July 2018
Yesterday marked the release of a new report on research integrity, produced by the Commons science and technology committee, which calls for a national committee on the subject of research misconduct .
The definition of research misconduct has been defined in the 2012 UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity (see below image), a document which came out of a working group representing universities, government departments and major funders of UK research. A search through both the original concordat and the new Commons report shows no mention of ‘harassment’ or ‘bullying’, or ‘sexual misconduct’. The 1752 Group believes that in terms of central oversight, we should be explicitly including sexual misconduct and all forms of bullying and harassment within the definition of research misconduct. False experimental results or methods result in the discrediting of entire groups, fields and institutions, leading to a drain on research output. We would argue that a similar drain occurs as a result of an incident of sexual misconduct, with multiple survivors and supporters pulled away from research and the discrediting of whole groups/institution following any big scandal. Yet comparing the two, research misconduct is spoken of as unquestionably serious while sexual misconduct is still spoken about uncomfortably at the highest levels, instead seen as a ‘diversity issue’ only.
The idea that those who perpetrate sexual misconduct are more likely to act unfavourably in other areas of their research is not new to those campaigning in this area. The 1752 Group has seen anecdotal examples of misappropriation of research funds and the giving and denying of research council funded resources as a reward and punishment system for sexually exploiting students. This has been written about before in the guise of the “Al Capone” theory, which claims that “people who engage in sexual harassment or assault are also likely to steal, plagiarize, embezzle, engage in overt racism, or otherwise harm their business” .
“We see a gap in the UK research integrity system for a new committee to provide a means of independently verifying whether a research institution has followed appropriate processes in investigating misconduct, following similar models in Canada and Australia. The primary responsibility to investigate misconduct should remain with the employer, but there is also a need to improve confidence in the existing system of self-regulation and to adjust for the potential conflict of interest of ‘self-policing’.”– Commons Report into Research Integrity, July 2018
We have begun to see recognition of the overlap between sexual and research misconduct already by individual sector bodies. For example the American Geophysical Union made the decision in 2017 to define sexual harassment as a form of scientific misconduct , recognising that plagiarism and sexual misconduct can both lead to people leaving the field and that the effects of sexual misconduct has an effect not just on the immediate target, “but on the research, institutions, students, faculty, or colleagues surrounding the misconduct” . It is also notable that one of the signatories of the original concordat, the Wellcome Trust, recently became the first UK funding body to ask PIs to disclose upheld disciplinary proceedings (including sexual misconduct) against them, reserve the right to withhold funding, and place accountability on the institution to ensure these disclosures are truthful . In addition, one of the other signatories, NIHR, made headlines in 2015 when it made a commitment to only accept future funding applications from departments which had achieved Athena Swan Silver . Whether you agree or not with the extent or implementation of these reforms, there is no doubt that at least the idea of linking funding to acceptable behaviour is becoming slowly more commonplace.
In our view, some distinction between sexual misconduct and research misconduct should remain. Within institutions, the investigation of sexual misconduct should remain separate due to the subtleties of the power imbalance when it comes to exploiting junior researchers, as opposed to money and resources. As our campaign work has shown, there needs to be a special consideration of the protections and rights given to complainants in a sexual misconduct case,which may risk getting lost if absorbed into a more general research misconduct policy. When it comes to oversight and accountability of universities to carry out those investigations in a fair and transparent way however, that oversight could be applied equally to all forms of misconduct, not only cases which involve the loss of money or research integrity.
Reading the Commons recommendations, the parallels between the reform needed in tackling research misconduct and those needed in tackling sexual misconduct is clear. In fact, the quotes in this report could have been lifted from many conversations that The 1752 Group has had in the past years, so we refer directly to the report here.
“…there has been a lack of co- ordinated leadership to drive the implementation of its recommendations in universities, such as transparency in declaring the number of misconduct investigations carried out each year.”– Commons Report into Research Integrity, July 2018
The idea that one shouldn’t sexually exploit students is not in itself revolutionary (we hope), but the fight to get institutions to recognise their responsibility to prevent it beyond writing a “zero-tolerance commitment” is ongoing. We are currently calling for universities to start publishing the numbers of complaints of sexual misconduct made each year, along with an anonymised count of the outcomes, e.g. informal, suspension, sanctions, final warning, dismissal. This serves both as a baseline for measuring reform and a way of making sure universities are accountable for their actions, and perhaps discouraged from settling things informally just to hide the numbers.
“The current lack of consistent transparency means that it is impossible to assess the scale of the research integrity issue, leading to accusations that parts of the sector are policing themselves in a secretive way in order to maintain its reputation or, worse, a perception that investigations are not conducted properly in order to avoid embarrassment.” – Commons Report into Research Integrity, July 2018
We’ve spoken before about the need to break the silence around sexual misconduct in universities;outcomes of disciplinary investigations to be public; and complainants to be allowed to talk about their experience after the end of an upheld process. The silence enforced by universities is not legally defensible, as the recent EHRC report has underlined by recommending that non-disclosure agreements not be used so freely in cases of sexual misconduct . The silence serves only to protect perpetrators at the expense of disarming victims and survivors from protecting themselves against retaliation and achieving justice. More than that, as suggested by the Commons report, there is more than a passing suspicion that this silence has one main beneficiary: the university itself in avoiding an embarrassing, public stain on its reputation.
“Employers, funders and publishers of research need to be able to share information to support investigations of misconduct, and it is encouraging that protocols are being developed to help employers to manage cases which cross institutional boundaries.” – Commons Report into Research Integrity, July 2018
While there is no doubt that universities have a responsibility to be open about the past mistakes and take action within their own campuses, the systemic extent of the problem calls for sector-wide action. Funding agencies, learned societies, conference organisers and publishers should all take responsibility for ensuring the research they are funding and advertising is not at the expense of other researchers. There would be no question of denying money and a platform for a researcher shown to have produced their research unethically in terms of experimental method, the same respect should be given to the unethical nature of sexually exploiting junior researchers.
“The new committee will need to be established by and work closely with UK Research and Innovation, and produce an annual report on the state of research integrity in the UK.” – Commons Report into Research Integrity, July 2018
We therefore call for the Office for Students and UKRI to work with The 1752 Group and other experts in the area of sexual misconduct in order to ensure the collection of national data on the subject of sexual misconduct in higher education, and provide regulatory power in the area. The Commons call for a new committee with this oversight on research integrity provides an ideal time to accept that prevention of sexual misconduct is a part of maintaining research integrity. Both issues are important, both are evidence-based and have a very similar set of solutions when it comes to accountability. Let’s work together on this one.
 For further coverage of the report see for example: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jul/11/mps-want-new-watchdog-to-monitor-misconduct-by-researchers?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other.
Updated:August 5th 2022