A Matter of Trust – Research Misconduct in Australia

by Kristen Scicluna


Australia’s lack of a research integrity watchdog leads to wasted funds, misdirected efforts and risks to public health.

It’s time for change.

I first heard the term ‘research misconduct’ during my Honours year, at a seminar by world‑renowned cancer biologist and research integrity campaigner Professor David “Davo” Vaux.

As Davo explains, some scientists aren’t the seekers of truth, proponents of critical thinking, and defenders of the scientific method that they are supposed to be.

He warned that rampant academic competition can drive some researchers to cut corners to gain a competitive edge over their peers.

He warned that rampant academic competition can drive some researchers to cut corners to gain a competitive edge over their peers.

As my career progressed – first as a research assistant and then as a doctoral researcher – I learned that some ‘scientists’ work in reverse. They make up the results first and then generate data to fit their hypotheses. This is the complete antithesis of the scientific method, which demands researchers iteratively generate new hypotheses based on experimental results.

Other unethical researchers use image editing software to manipulate data, images, and scientific figures. They crop, invert, duplicate, or merge their results to make them look more impressive than they really are. Then there are the ones who commit plain old plagiarism or make things up out of thin air.

Why do these transgressions matter outside the lab?

Consider a seminal 2006 research paper that led to a new theory about how Alzheimer’s disease works. It sent researchers on a wild goose chase that lasted 15 years before anyone realised the figures in the paper were falsified. Would researchers be closer to a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease if this paper was never published?

Professor Mark Smyth is another case in point. He was one of Australia’s most prestigious immunologists, awarded over $38 million in publicly-funded research grants over his three‑decade‑long career. Then, in 2020, he was found guilty of research misconduct.

These cases show that research integrity is essential for funding and for fairness – but also for our health. In the case of medical research, fabricated and falsified data can put patients at serious risk.

In another Australian research integrity controversy, a skin cancer drug was injected into patients during a clinical trial. However, participants in the study were not informed that whistleblowers had raised concerns about the authenticity of the work that underpinned the drug, or the side effects the drug had caused in the mice it was tested on.

Like all allegations of research misconduct in Australia, universities are expected to take full responsibility for investigation and enforcement.

This is unlike the UK, USA, Japan, China, Canada and the 23 European nations that all have research integrity watchdogs to regulate, investigate or oversee allegations of research misconduct.

Instead, Australia relies on a self-regulation model. Research institutions are trusted to conduct investigations themselves, and they have no obligation or incentive to bring research misconduct (which might make them look bad) to light. Our current system allows – and, in fact, incentivises – research institutions to keep their investigations under wraps. That is if they choose to initiate one in the first place …

As we know from the Global Financial Crisis, privatised aged care, and countless other examples, self-regulation does not lead industries to act ethically or in the public interest.

As we know from the Global Financial Crisis, privatised aged care, and countless other examples, self-regulation does not lead industries to act ethically or in the public interest.

An effective research integrity watchdog is needed to ensure that cases like the ones listed above are investigated in a robust, transparent, and impartial way that is not subject to the whims of the institution conducting them. They also must ensure whistleblowers can be heard and protected.

Exactly why Australia does not yet have a research integrity watchdog is unclear. It’s certainly not for lack of trying. Research integrity campaigners like Davo have been advocating for one for decades.

However, Universities Australia (a lobby group for University Vice Chancellors) has yet to offer much support for an Australian research integrity watchdog. They’ve suggested that the current self‑regulation model works just fine and that a new research integrity body would “create duplication, large expense and extensive delays in dispute resolution”. Like the banks and the aged care sector before them, they do not want independent regulation.

Bizarrely, Australia lacks a mandatory definition of ‘research misconduct’, and research institutions that do decide to investigate unethical research can choose whether or not to use the term.

Institutions do not have to report the results of their investigations. This means cases of research misconduct can be swept under the rug. Often, they only come to light after whistleblowers turn to the media as a last resort – which is not the best look for the research sector in a global environment of increasing distrust and scepticism in science.

Unchecked research misconduct wastes public funds, hinders scientific progress, and risks people’s health. Taken together, this seriously calls the credibility of Australian research into question.

Australian researchers are no more or less honest than their international counterparts, and the majority act with integrity, honesty, and rigour. But other nations have research integrity watchdogs. Australia does not. This needs to change.

If Australia is to foster confidence and trust in its research, establishing an independent research integrity watchdog is essential.

Related research

Between the Lines Newsletter

The biggest stories and the best analysis from the team at the Australia Institute, delivered to your inbox every fortnight.

Sign up

You might also like

Go Home! | Between the Lines

The Wrap with Ebony Bennett Today is our annual Go Home on Time Day, when we shine a spotlight on the unpaid overtime of workers across Australia. This year’s report found that employers were stealing more than 280 hours from workers each year, exposing a heavily uneven labour market rife with insecure work and often