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French science behemoth launches research-integrity office

Europe’s largest basic-research agency, the CNRS, wants to improve how it tackles misconduct investigations.

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Antoine Petit of CNRS

CNRS's research integrity office was established by the organization’s president Antoine Petit.Credit: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty

France’s national research centre, the CNRS, has announced plans to create its first office of research integrity to investigate scientific misconduct and promote good research practice.

The organization, Europe largest basic-research agency, has some 33,000 staff members, including more than 15,000 researchers, 14,000 engineers and approximately 4,000 technicians. It operates more than 1,000 laboratories and has a budget of around €3.3 billion (US$3.8 billion).

The office was established by the organization’s president, Antoine Petit. It will be headed by theoretical physicist Rémy Mosseri of the agency’s Theoretical Physics of Condensed Matter Laboratory in Paris, who will be assisted by five staff members — one in charge of promoting good research practice and four to investigate misconduct allegations.

“Scientific integrity is an absolute necessity for the concept of trust: trust between scientists to advance knowledge, but also with the general public,” Mosseri told a press conference in Paris on 13 November.

In October 2018, following a second investigation, CNRS largely cleared a researcher that it had heavily sanctioned in 2015 for research misconduct.

Protecting whistle-blowers

Transparency of CNRS misconduct investigations is crucial, Petit said at the press conference. Those subject to misconduct investigation will be informed once any allegation is determined to be worth looking into further. Experts involved in investigations will be screened for potential competing interests.

The office will not accept anonymous accusations — but has vowed not to reveal the names of those who make complaints. “I am totally opposed to anonymous denunciations. We should not accept these, but rather guarantee the confidentiality of whistle-blowers,” said Petit. “I myself won't know their names.”

Anonymity is a tricky issue, says Olivier Le Gall, a plant virologist and former deputy director-general of INRA, the French agricultural-research agency. By promising not to name whistle-blowers, the agency is hoping to provide an alternative to anonymous complaints. Early-career scientists, for instance, should be able to level misconduct allegations in confidence and not fear retaliation. But, says Le Gall, the CNRS would likely also ask its integrity office to look into substantive anonymous allegations.

The establishment of a research-integrity office at the CNRS is part of a growing awareness of such issues in France. A national body, the French Office of Research Integrity, was created in 2017 to coordinate efforts across France’s research ecosystem, and it will issue a road map of its plans next month. More than 80 French research bodies have now created posts for research-integrity officers, up from around two dozen or so last year, says Le Gall, who chairs the advisory board of the national integrity office.

The French efforts are aimed at improving confidence in how research bodies handle misconduct allegations, Le Gall says.

“The problem at the moment is that scientific misconduct often arouses such strong passions that reputations can be unfairly tarnished, and people can often lose sight of a sense of proportion as to whether any misconduct is minor, serious or really serious,” he says. “We need to move from a Wild West system of justice to a more civilized rule of law that is rigorous and transparent.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07466-y
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