The National Academies Will Revisit Responsible Science

Along with its countless studies on various scientific questions that can help inform policy, The National Academies‘ various units address scientific conduct from time to time.  Most recently they issued a third edition of On Being a Scientist, which addresses ethical and other professional research conduct from the perspective of the individual scientist.  Other reports have focused on specific aspects of research conduct, from human subjects protection to research data.

One report that was overdue for a revisit is Responsible Science, a two volume report issued in 1992-3.  While some overlap with On Being a Scientist is unavoidable, Responsible Science is more focused on processes, procedures and institutions.  The collection of papers and policies on ethical conduct in Volume 2 is a useful resource, one I hope research agencies took advantage of when developing their scientific integrity policies (though I suspect that happened in the rarest of instances).  The 1992 report

Earlier this week a study committee met at the National Academies to start work on a revision of Responsible Research.  The public session was relatively straightforward for an Academies study (I worked at the Academies in the first half of the last decade).  Study sponsors (Office of Research Integrity at the Health and Human Services Department, the Energy Department’s Office of Science, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, The U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation Office of the Inspector General).  The study is charged with addressing the following questions (an expanded list of the questions addressed in the 1992 report):

What is the state of current knowledge about modern research practices for a range of disciplines, including trends and practices that could affect the integrity of research?  What is the impact of modern technology such as image enhancement, the internet, and data storage systems?

What are the impacts on integrity of changing trends in the dynamics of the research enterprise, such as globalization, the treatment of intellectual property, handling of materials and specimens, university oversight and IRBs, and demands of government regulation?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of enhanced educational efforts and explicit guidelines for researchers and research institutions?  Can the research community itself define and strengthen basic standards for scientists and their institutions?  How is this impacted by increased collaboration among researchers, in the US and internationally?

What roles are appropriate for government agencies, research institutions and universities, and journals in promoting responsible research practices?  What can be learned from institutional and journal experiences with current procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in science?

What should the definition of research misconduct include?  Should it only include the criteria of “falsification, fabrication and plagiarism” (drawn from the 1992 edition of Responsible Science) or should it be broadened to include elements of questionable research practices and research impropriety?

Should existing unwritten practices be expressed as principles to guide the responsible conduct of research?  The committee is encouraged to prepare model guidelines and other materials if it deems that would be useful.

While not part of the charge, I hope that the report will make some attempt to determine what exactly has changed in the the area of research misconduct policies and practices in the two decades since the last revision.  Many of the recommendations in the 1992 report reflect a feeling that there is not a lot of data available on important issues.  Is there still a data problem, are the general practices encouraged in 1992 more widely adopted?

Perhaps this might be a stretch, but I think it worth considering how to place this report in the context of two major changes in ethical research conduct: the revisions of the “Common Rule” for federally funded human subjects research and the scientific integrity policies emerging in fits and starts from federal agencies.

Regardless, it’s good to see this report receiving a revisit.  Hopefully the next one won’t take another two decades.

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