Integrity of research is fundamental to foster public confidence in science
The problem has worried research funding agencies and motivated academic institutions to discuss the subject and develop educational actions on the matter10/11/2020
The number of reports of plagiarism, counterfeiting and even invention of scientific research results and processes has increased significantly in recent years within the scientific environment in several countries. Ethical problems in conducting and reporting research, especially related to plagiarism, have brought progressive apprehension to scientific journal publishers. These problems, usually called deviations from academic conduct, directly affect the credibility of scientific discoveries, bring harmful social and economic consequences, fail to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and still delay the work of other researchers, who need to take time to confirm results already published.
Aline Pacifico, current president of the Brazilian Research Administration and Management Association (BRAMA), an entity that represents the community of Scientific Research Managers in Brazil, explains that in the country we still lack a formal education in research management, but the exchange of experience directly impacts on how research institutions establish processes that can prevent problems of scientific integrity, or rather, the absence of scientific integrity.
The Brazilian Association of Research Managers, for example, has the role of creating networking opportunities for sharing good practices among administrators and research managers at their operational, tactical and strategic levels, she says. According to her, many processes managed at any of these levels, in a way, have an impact on scientific integrity. At the operational level, it is very important that research institutions have a structure of professionals who manage the resources granted by the funding agencies to avoid compliance problems. In addition, they can also provide researchers and professors with technical support for proper planning of research projects in relation to statistics and database structuring, she highlights. Still according to her, at the tactical level the institutions can organize processes and if possible, computerize them, so that they monitor the execution of research projects at least at a macro level. Finally, at the strategic level, directors of institutes and university deans can create committees or offices of scientific integrity in order to care for and improve good practices in conducting research in the institution, but also to establish policies related to misconduct, ethics and conflicts of interest, she stresses.
Dr. Luiz Vicente Rizzo, Superintendent Director of Research of the Brazilian Albert Einstein Beneficent Society, is categorical when he says that the constitution of processes and structures to deal with integrity in research in an institution such as the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital is fundamental. Science is based on trust. When reading a scientific article, the reader starts from the principle that the work is intact. It is assumed that the data were collected with all the consent of the regulatory authorities, that the participants (anima nobili or animals) were treated in an ethical manner, that the statistical analysis did not present a bias, and so we proceeded with all the presumptions necessary to understand the research as legitimate, he justifies.
Asked whether the current system for evaluating research productivity favors or hinders research integrity, Aline Pacífico argues that there is no universal system for evaluating researcher productivity in Brazil and, in her opinion, neither there should be. Each funding agency uses its own criteria, the Coordination for Higher Level Personnel Improvement [Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior] (CAPES) uses another, and research institutions and universities also have their own evaluation systems.
The issue of Research Assessment is another widely discussed aspect in research management associations around the world. The evaluation of scientific results, whether of an individual, a research group, an institution or even a country, needs to be based on a set of criteria that makes sense and has value for that specific situation. In this case, the role of the research manager is fundamental to ensure that the process is fair to those under evaluation. The Research Evaluation Working Group, created by the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS), for example, has as its main objective the development of materials with information for research managers about the importance of evaluating scientific results in a responsible manner. The materials developed by this group so far can help research institutions to organize their evaluation processes in a fair and responsible manner.
Einstein creates Office of Scientific Integrity to ensure excellence in research
In 2014, the Albert Einstein Learning and Research Institute (IIEP) established an Office of Scientific Integrity, composed of an operational management team and the Scientific Integrity Committee, created for the purpose of auditing research held within the Institution. Thus, it is the only Brazilian institution to have an office concerned with excellence in internal research.
At Einstein, the concept of quality has existed for decades and regarding Research this could not be different. Scientific integrity is quality in science. It is important to try to ensure that the research that is done on behalf of the Institution has quality and therefore the establishment of the Office of Scientific Integrity and its processes is a natural and necessary result of the Program of Quality in Research, adds Dr. Rizzo. Still according to him, the creation of the Office is an administrative framework, but the actions started many years ago under the management of Dr. Anna Carla Goldberg with the Program of Quality in Research. This program was mainly educational, with instructions on handling and storing data and samples, monitoring of statistical analysis among others. The research project management system is also a fundamental tool. It is a platform in which all projects of the institution are registered and monitored, with biannual reports and evaluation of appropriate committees, ethics in research with human beings, ethics in use and care and animals and biosafety.
Regarding the response of the scientific community to these actions, Dr. Rizzo recognizes that there is always an initial reaction that sees more bureaucracy and this is normal. The researcher wants to research. However, the institution is in a degree of scientific maturity where there are no great difficulties in most cases, he emphasizes. And if integrity problems occur, the remedial and corrective actions are already planned. There is a specific flow chart. However, every action of the Office assumes that if there are deviations, they were caused, in prior, by ignorance. Thus, the actions intend to be primarily educational for the beginning of any thought, he concludes.
The auditing process begins when the projects registered in the Research Project Management System (RPMS) and approved in the Research Ethics Committee (RECs) go through a randomization that draws the ones that will go through the auditing analysis based on three selection criteria. Currently Brazil has about 800 CEPs. These committees are linked to the National Commission on Ethics in Research (CONEP), one of the 18 committees of the National Health Council. After this stage, it is verified if the recommendations made by the CEP are being executed in the studies. After this, the projects follow the compliance processes, which analyze if there is evidence of misconduct, if there was adequate ethical approval and if there was the application of informed consent terms, when this is the case. In addition, it is ascertained whether data is being collected, maintained and managed appropriately. At the end, the Office team certifies if the published text is in accordance with all the information verified in congruence with the study proposal. Since the creation of the Integrity Committee, 126 research projects have been audited and 15 audits are currently underway.
The number of research retractments has grown worldwide, increasing the concern with scientific integrity
The most worrying data are from the United States, according to the Office of Research Integrity – ORI, of the U.S. Department of Health. According to the Office, the number of papers retracted in the last ten years in the biomedical sciences alone has increased 435% – including articles contained in PubMed, the international reference for research in this area. In 2012, 375 articles were portrayed, compared to 271 in 2011 and 70 in 2003.
In 2011, 240 reports were received, and out of 29 completed investigations, 13 (44%) resulted in a guilty verdict. Data from the Web of Science, the digital library that catalogs articles from the best scientific journals in the world, indicate that in 2011 and 2012, about 800 works were retracted, according to estimates released by the Retraction Watch website, which publishes notifications about research portrayed around the planet.
More recently, an article published in January 2016 in Scientometrics journal analyzed 1,623 retractions published between 2013 and 2015, having parameters such as country of origin, area of knowledge and cause of retreat. The work was carried out by researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and noted that the retractions were distributed in 71 countries.
But the analysis focused on the 15 nations responsible for most (85%), consisting of regions quite productive in terms of scientific publications. Brazil does not figure in this list, although in 2015 it ranked 13th in the ranking of the countries with the most articles indexed in the SCImago Journal & Country Rank indicator database. Hence the importance of this investment in the sector for Brazilian research to be among the desired parameters.