Research Misconduct in Australia: Part 1

The case for an independent research integrity watchdog
by Kristen Scicluna and Richard Denniss

Australia has no independent body to investigate allegations of misconduct in scientific research, unlike most countries with developed research sectors. Research institutes largely investigate allegations themselves, leading to potential conflicts of interest. A research watchdog is needed to ensure the integrity of Australian science.

In contrast to most countries with developed research sectors, Australia does not have an independent authority with the power to address allegations of research misconduct. Instead, under the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research 2018 (the Code), the investigation of potentially dangerous or unethical research relies on self-regulation.

Australia’s research institutions, including its universities, have full discretion to decide whether or not to investigate allegations of research misconduct. Investigations that do take place can be entirely internal, their findings do not have to be made public, and the use of the term ‘research misconduct’ to describe major breaches of the Code is optional – in fact, the Code does not even clearly define what constitutes ‘research misconduct’.

Appeals against investigation outcomes can only be made on procedural grounds through the Australian Research Integrity Committee (ARIC). Appeals based on merit or evidence cannot be considered. This approach has raised major concerns regarding conflicts of interest, inadequate penalties, lack of transparency, and flawed appeals processes.

The Australian Academy of Science has started making steps towards the establishment of a body, perhaps to be called Research Integrity Australia (RIA), that would oversee research misconduct in Australia. Documentation detailing its framework has not yet been made available to the public.

Progress on a research integrity body is welcome and overdue. Over 500 Australian academic papers have been retracted over the past 20 years. Research misconduct has consequences, including risks to patient health, misappropriation of research funding, and the obstruction of progress on other research.

This paper is Part 1 of a two-part series that examines research misconduct in Australia, and recommends how to fix it.

The case for an independent research integrity watchdog