In the past eight years, 133 federally funded researchers were disciplined for integrity breaches ranging from a lack of scientific rigour and fabricating work to mismanagement of funds.
The reprimanded researchers represent about half of the 274 cases handled by the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research, an arm’s-length body established by the federal government in 2011 to investigate alleged misconduct by researchers and the institutions at which they work.
The watchdog does not reveal the names of those it disciplines, even in cases in which police become involved. Some in the academic community are urging for greater transparency by the secretariat – which has a high degree of discretion over what can be disclosed about the most severe integrity breaches in publicly funded research.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in shedding as much light on things as possible,” said Marc Joanisse, a former chairman of the panel that decides on sanctions at the secretariat.
“I had tried really hard to push that when I was chair. I think that it is a bit of a weighing of the different interests there,” such as privacy or legal concerns, said Prof. Joanisse, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute.
The secretariat’s privacy concerns extend to a case of data fabrication inside a drug-discovery lab at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus – revealed in a Globe and Mail investigation earlier this month.
Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the secretariat, would not discuss whether the organization had received any complaints related to the case, but noted the secretariat has the power to launch a review of an institution’s actions without a formal complaint.
The University of Toronto declined to respond last week to further questions from The Globe about the school’s handling of the incident. Administrators have not yet spoken with the postdoctoral fellow who discovered that a graduate student working in the lab of prominent cancer researcher Patrick Gunning had fabricated experiment results.
The postdoctoral fellow detailed his findings and the implications of the fake data to a department chair in 2016. The university launched a research-integrity inquiry more than two years later, after The Globe asked about the data fabrication. The inquiry concluded in 2019.
Heather Boon, vice-provost of faculty and academic life at U of T, said in August that the allegations against the lab were found “to be unjustified and no further investigation was recommended.”
In a December, 2018, statement, Prof. Gunning said the incident “in the end had no impact on the direction of any” of the lab’s research-and-development programs.
The secretariat’s disciplinary process relies on institutions to investigate their own employees and submit their findings to the Ottawa-based organization. The institutions’ investigation reports are anonymized and handed to the secretariat’s Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research, a volunteer group of experts that recommends sanctions – such as a letter of warning or permanent funding ban – to the president of the federal granting agency that backed the researcher’s work.
Twenty-five researchers were reprimanded in 2019 for integrity breaches, tying last year’s record number, according to recently released data from the secretariat. While the identities of the researchers are rarely disclosed, some information about their misconduct is made public.
The Globe analyzed 63 anonymized file summaries, published online by the panel between 2011 and 2016. The summaries revealed “extensive plagiarism” by someone in a prestigious role; a researcher who instructed students to deny that dangerous pathogens were stored in the lab if questioned by institutional officials; and another who spent up to $200,000 in funding on personal items and travel. At least three incidents of fraud were reported to the police.
But a public disclosure statement has only been issued once, in 2016, in the case of Toronto doctor Sophie Jamal.
She was permanently barred from applying for federal research funding after she was found manipulating data in a study at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.
The extent that the integrity breach threatens public safety or brings the conduct of research into disrepute is weighed in the decision to publicly disclose cases, said Ms. Zimmerman, the secretariat’s executive director. The discretion to not name researchers is applied even in cases where the researcher did “something egregious that perhaps has affected the public” but is now deceased, she said.
Both researchers and their institutions rely on government agencies to help fund their scientific work. Signing a consent to disclose personal information was made a condition of applying for federal research funding in November, 2011.
Between December, 2011 to this winter, the secretariat reviewed 15 allegations against institutions, and issued letters to four of them to “clarify their responsibilities and provide some guidance,” spokesman David Coulombe said. None were found in breach of the policy that governs federal research integrity. The names of these institutions have not been disclosed.
There is a penchant for secrecy in academia because research integrity issues are often perceived as career-ending, said Brian Martinson, a sociologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, who co-authored a 2010 report on research integrity in Canada.
“If the only penalty is death by beheading, nobody wants to talk about the crime,” Prof. Martinson said.
But even researchers found to have committed the most serious academic sin of FFP – fabrication, falsification or plagiarism – can find redemption, according to at least one U.S. study.
“Not only do researchers receive second chances after engaging in research misconduct, those second chances are quite prevalent,” writes American ethics expert Kyle L. Galbraith, in his 2017 study of 284 biomedical researchers found to have committed FFP. “Clearly, misconduct is not the career-killer one might have expected.”
Under the secretariat’s policy, institutions are asked to post annual statistics about research misconduct findings on their websites. Adherence is not uniform.
The University of British Columbia, for example, annually publishes anonymous summaries of their findings of scholarly misconduct, including the penalties issued. Ryerson University does not post such summaries, a spokesperson with the school confirmed.
The University of Toronto releases statistics about the cases processed and types of breaches. A school spokesperson declined to respond to The Globe’s questions about what penalties were levied against six researchers disciplined between 2012 and 2018, citing confidentiality.