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UK launches panel to tackle research misconduct

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.332.7546.871-a (Published 13 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:871
  1. Andrew Cole
  1. London

    A new independent body to tackle biomedical research misconduct in the United Kingdom was launched this week—but its powers will be limited to providing advice and promoting good practice.

    The UK Panel for Health and Biomedical Research Integrity has been initially set up as a three year project, and its first priority will be to develop a code of practice applicable to universities, the NHS, and industry.

    The panel will also support whistleblowers reporting cases of alleged research fraud in addition to offering training, seminars, and advice on how to investigate suspected cases of research malpractice.

    But the panel, chaired by Ian Kennedy, a leading expert in medical ethics and chairman of the NHS watchdog, the Healthcare Commission, will not be able to investigate research misconduct itself. This will remain the responsibility of the employer or research sponsor. Instead, its functions will be “promotional and advisory.”

    A number of high profile cases of alleged research fraud in the UK recently have related to plagiarism or falsification of data. A survey of universities in 2004 by Universities UK found that four out of 10 had dealt with allegations of research misconduct in the previous five years and almost half of these cases were in health and biomedical research(BMJ 2005;330: 616).

    The UK's research community needed to show its integrity in the way it conducted its research, said Professor Kennedy, who warned of the danger of a public backlash if nothing was done. “The poor practice and misconduct of a few [can] undermine public confidence and can put patients and volunteers at risk.”

    Michael Farthing, pro-vice chancellor for medicine at the University of London, and a driving force in setting up the research panel, said that producing robust guidance on good practice would be top of the new body's priorities, with a first draft expected later this year.

    He accepted that some would complain that the new body had no teeth. “But the aim of this body is to sharpen the teeth of the universities and NHS organisations.” The existence of the panel would make it more difficult for an organisation to ignore an allegation or concern.

    But the self regulatory approach was rejected by Peter Wilmshurst, consultant cardiologist at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and a long standing campaigner against research misconduct. “I am concerned that, like any form of self regulation, there will be a whitewash,” he said. “The fact is that any body that regulates itself, such as the [General Medical Council], tends not to produce findings that the public can have confidence in.” A completely independent organisation was needed.

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