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Scandal-weary Swedish government takes over research-fraud investigations

The Research Misconduct Board is one of the first national agencies tasked with investigating serious research misconduct.

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Paolo Macchiarini

Trachea surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was at the centre of a high-profile case of research misconduct in Sweden.Credit: Lina Alriksson/DN/TT/PA

Bruised by a string of high-profile scientific-misconduct cases, Sweden has laid the legislative groundwork for a government agency that will handle all allegations of serious research misconduct. The country follows in the footsteps of neighbouring Denmark, which created the world’s first such agency in 2017.

Proponents say that handling research-misconduct investigations centrally should ensure equal, impartial treatment. But others say the move will divert resources and attention away from less serious breaches that universities will continue to deal with in-house and which, they argue, cumulatively do more damage than some more serious misdemeanours.

The way in which Swedish research institutes handle allegations of research misconduct has come under fire in recent years — thanks in part to the case of trachea surgeon Paolo Macchiarini. Macchiarini had been accused of misconduct relating to trials of an experimental trachea-transplant method, in which some patients died. On three occasions in 2015, the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm cleared him, but independent investigations commissioned by the Karolinska later found that he had committed misconduct. A 2016 independent commission concluded that the institute’s procedures were flawed.

Central changes

The Swedish government launched an independent inquiry in 2015 to investigate whether new systems are needed for dealing with research misconduct. But the Macchiarini case “changed the whole landscape” of how to approach research misconduct in Sweden, says Margaretha Fahlgren, who studies literature at Uppsala University and led the inquiry. “It became very messy,” she adds.

Weaknesses in Swedish university probes came to light again in 2017, because of a now-retracted paper in Science1 that claimed that microplastic pollution harms fish. An investigation by Uppsala University, where the study’s two authors were based, exonerated them. But the case was referred to the research-misconduct committee of Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board for an independent investigation, which found the researchers had committed scientific misconduct. (In the existing system, universities and whistle-blowers can ask this committee for advice on cases or to conduct independent investigations, but the committee will be disbanded with the creation of the new agency.)

In February 2017, Fahlgren’s inquiry to Sweden’s research ministry that scientific organizations refer all cases of alleged misconduct to a new government agency — to be called the Research Misconduct Board — for investigation. The board, it advised, should be chaired by a judge and consist of up to ten scientists with expertise in different fields.

The agency will be created through a law that passed parliament on 18 June and is expected to come into force in January 2020. The law defines research misconduct as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. All cases of alleged serious research misconduct at publicly funded research institutes will be referred to the board for investigation. Findings will be made public and will be legally binding for universities, which will be allowed to decide the consequences for the researcher.

The proposed system is an improvement, says Karin Åmossa, head of research and international affairs at the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers in Stockholm. Currently, institutions investigate most allegations internally, which can lead to some cases not being treated fairly or transparently, she says. Institutions can ask the Central Ethical Review Board for advice, but they are not obliged to uphold the board’s findings. And different universities might not agree on what constitutes misconduct.

Pam Fredman, vice-chancellor of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, says that it is important for cases of misconduct to be brought into the open to show researchers that these behaviours are not acceptable. “We need to protect research at universities, and for people to trust universities,” she says.

Need for transparency

Alan Price, a consultant in Lago Vista, Texas, who works with people who have been accused of research misconduct, says that a central misconduct agency would ensure consistency in investigations’ rigour. But it could leave the committee overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases referred to it.

But not everyone is convinced. Probes into conduct should remain in-house, with systems put in place to improve them, says Nicholas Steneck, an independent research-integrity consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “If universities cannot be trusted to carry out responsible investigations, why should we trust them with any research funding?” he says.

Some experts think that less serious ethical breaches, such as the misrepresentation of data, do more harm to science than those covered by the Swedish law. “Significant resources are being spent on a problem that might not be the most significant,” Steneck says.

Other countries are looking at how they deal with research misconduct. In July 2017, Denmark established a national system similar to Sweden’s. It has so far investigated nine cases.

In the United Kingdom, a parliamentary inquiry suggested in 2018 that the government set up a national committee to monitor universities’ misconduct investigations, and China last year announced sweeping reforms to crack down on poor scientific behaviour in universities.

Fahlgren hopes that Sweden’s move will shore up the public trust in research, which declined as a result of the Macchiarini case. “The research community has been very highly trusted by the public,” she says, “but when we had this big scandal, it changed the public image of research and researchers.”

Nature 571, 158 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05493-3

References

  1. 1.

    Lönnstedt, O. & Eklöv, P. Science 352, 1213–1216 (2016); retraction 356, 812 (2017).

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