Intended for healthcare professionals


Britain is ahead of US in dealing with misconduct

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 18 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:803
  1. Martin (Ted) Hermary, doctoral candidate (thermary{at}
  1. Department of Sociology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2T 3T7

    EDITOR—Christie reports on a consensus statement on research misconduct drawn up at a consensus conference last year. In his report he writes that “The two day conference, held at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, heard that Britain is 20 years behind countries such as the United States.”1

    I beg to differ. Decades of American debates about misconduct have not produced anything like a consensus of professional, academic, and governmental representatives, parties who normally have been at odds with each other in that country. Furthermore, the British statement's definition of research misconduct—“behaviour by a researcher, intentional or not, that falls short of good ethical and scientific standards”—and its insistence that even this should not be read narrowly, contrasts with the “professional” lobbying in the United States for a purportedly narrower definition. I am sure that many observers, both inside and outside science, would judge the British actions as more progressive and more professional, expressing a broader and deeper social responsibility.

    Where the British statement seems to flag is in its vague prescriptions for action when misconduct is alleged or confirmed, although even this shortcoming should be put into perspective. The more elaborate procedures in the United States directly involve only government offices and institutions that receive public funding. Professional associations are accorded no definite, active, and positive role in this scheme; nor have they asked forone. The British colleges' offer to help in investigations into misconduct and their promise to publish information about verified incidents certainly go beyond the efforts of their American counterparts.

    A key question remaining for the colleges (and their counterparts elsewhere) is whether, in the event of confirmed misconduct by one of their members, they would levy sanctions, graduated according to the severity of the act, and within the colleges' legitimate authority. In particular, would they be prepared to “excommunicate” one of their members, given confirmation of sufficiently serious misconduct on his or her part? Explicitly promising to do so would at least put them on a par with schoolteachers, lawyers, and other professionals.

    To find a country that is behind the times in misconduct policy or regulation, one need look no further than one's own. It will only take another international scandal of the order of those of the early 1990s to show the primitive state of Canadian policies.


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