Just a fraction of universities in the United Kingdom have made public the extent of their investigations into research misconduct, a survey has found — even though all have been told that they should do so.

Since 2013, the United Kingdom’s major research funders have said that to receive grants, universities must adhere to a set of guidelines that recommend publishing annual summaries of their formal investigations into research misconduct.

But a snapshot survey carried out on behalf of the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO, a national advisory body with no regulatory powers) has found that universities are falling short on this recommendation. The survey was presented at the UKRIO’s annual conference in London on 13 May.

Integrity rules

The integrity guidelines are laid out in a document called The Concordat to Support Research Integrity , created in 2012 by a consortium led by Universities UK, an umbrella body for British higher-education institutions. It was designed to counteract claims that the United Kingdom, which has no regulatory body covering research integrity, had an inadequate oversight system to deal with research misconduct.

The survey contacted 44 universities that contribute funding to the UKRIO, and found that of 27 who responded, only one-third had published summaries of their investigations into research misconduct for 2013–14. Among another 44 randomly-chosen institutions who do not subscribe to the UKRIO, the figure was 7% — just 3 institutions. UKRIO says it plans to publish the survey at a later date.

The 12 reports that had been published outlined a total of 21 investigations, of which 4 upheld the allegations of misconduct and 3 were ongoing. Of the 11 cases in which a type of misconduct was specified, 5 were investigations into plagiarism, 2 into falsification, 2 into questions over authorship, one into fabrication and one into breach of confidentiality.

The meaning of ‘should’

It became clear at the conference that not every university had the same understanding of the concordat’s wording that institutions ‘should’ make their reports public. Not all took it to mean that reporting was mandatory; those that did included the University of Cambridge. “We didn’t know we were an outlier,” said Peter Hedges, head of the university’s research-operations office and a member of the UKRIO advisory board.

Survey author Elizabeth Wager, a freelance consultant and a member of UKRIO’s advisory board, said that she too interprets the recommendation as a requirement. But she understands universities’ reluctance to publish their data, she added. “Properly conducted misconduct investigations should be seen as a badge of honour, not something you’re embarrassed about. If there’s an increase in them, that might be a good thing. However that’s not always how the public perceives it, or the way it’s written up, so I can understand the caution,” she told the conference.

Institutions may also worry that their definitions of misconduct and formal investigation differ from those of other institutions, she said, so more guidance to ensure that universities are counting the same things would be helpful.

Even for the 12 reports that were published, finding information wasn’t always easy, said Wager. In one case, she needed a login to access the published report; in another the number of investigations was not stated.

Four universities' reports stated that they had no formal investigations — which probably stemmed from differing definitions of what counts as an investigation, Wager said. “I think it’s completely improbable for big, research-intensive universities to say we have had no cases. It’s just not credible”.

Wager added that many universities she spoke to as part of the research said that they were in the process of putting together these reports, or were planning to do so next year.