Research institutes seeking grants from the Wellcome Trust will soon have to adhere to a new set of standards for scientific conduct. And in the absence of government action on research misconduct, observers say, the charitable trust's guidelines are likely to set a de facto standard for British universities.

Standard bearer: the Wellcome Trust has released draft guidelines for handling scientific misconduct. Credit: WELLCOME TRUST

A draft of the guidelines, issued for comment on 26 July, defines good science practice and sets out procedures for handling cases of misconduct, such as plagiarism and falsification of data. But in their current form, critics point out, they do little to protect people who blow the whistle on misconduct.

The trust, which funds nearly 20% of Britain's biomedical research, plans to insist that all institutions receiving its grants adhere to the standards from October 2002.

Robert Terry, a senior policy adviser at the trust, says the peer-review process cannot prevent scientific misconduct. “This issue has been discussed for a while in Britain, but hasn't moved much forward,” he says. “We felt we had to make our own position clear.”

The Medical Research Council, Britain's main publicly funded biomedical granting agency, expects institutions to investigate allegations concerning their own researchers. The Wellcome Trust says it will carry out its own investigations in “exceptional cases”, such as when it feels its reputation is at stake.

The United Kingdom has no national body to investigate misconduct cases, and each of the six research councils, which distribute government grant money to scientists, has its own guidelines for universities.

“This is the biggest thing to happen in the field of scientific misconduct in the United Kingdom for years,” says Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and an expert on scientific misconduct in Europe. “I'm impressed by this document's decisiveness, thoughtfulness and clarity.”

The extent of the Wellcome Trust's support for biomedical research is likely to turn its guidelines into de facto national guidelines, Rennie says. Terry agrees: “I doubt that universities will institute a system that only applies to Trust researchers,” he says.

In December 2000, the European Science Foundation encouraged scientific societies to press for the creation of national bodies to investigate misconduct. Denmark is the only European nation that has such a body.

But Marcus De Ville, a spokesman for the UK Office of Science and Technology, says there are no plans to create one in Britain. “It is for the scientific body as a whole to regulate itself,” he says. “The peer-review process is the system which verifies the credibility of scientific research, and that process works.”

While broadly welcoming the guidelines, Herbert Arst, a professor of microbial genetics at Imperial College in London, says they offer inadequate protection to people who make allegations. Whistle-blowers are often stigmatized in the scientific community and may face expensive libel suits, he says, causing misconduct to go unreported.

Terry responds that the final Wellcome Trust guidelines may include stronger protection for whistle-blowers.