Promoting the ethical conduct of science

Back in 2004, Sir David King (at the time, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser) initiated a discussion about generating a Code of Conduct for Scientists. The consultation process led, in 2006, to the publication of Rigour, respect and responsibility: a universal ethical code for scientists. None of the contents was particularly surprising or radical but it brought together in one place a list of seven key principles that ought to be foundational for the ethical conduct and communication of science.

The Code of Conduct emphasises seven key points

The Code of Conduct emphasises seven key points

The Code received a public launch at the BA Festival of Science in September 2007 and was reported in the general press at the time (see, for example, UK science head backs ethics code). During the intervening two years, conversations with scientist colleagues (across a range of institutions) have revealed almost universal ignorance about the existence of the Code, let alone its content.

The new guidelines from Research Councils UK will see greater emphasis on research ethics

The new guidelines from Research Councils UK will see greater emphasis on research ethics

All this is about to change. In July 2009 Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organisation for the seven publicly-funded Research Councils, produced Integrity, Clarity and Good Management, a Policy and Code of Conducton the Governance of Good Research Conduct. An accompanying letter from Prof Ian Diamond, Chair of the RCUK Exec Committee, makes it clear that from 1st October 2009 adherence to the guidelines and code will be a requirement for all those seeking funding via the Research Councils.

The RCUK document is quite broad in its definition of unacceptable conduct and includes poor and inadequate record keeping alongside deliberate dishonesty. The misconduct highlighted includes:

  • Fabrication: producing false data or documents
  • Falsification: manipulating data, including images
  • Plagiarism: taking someone else’s work or ideas without credit
  • Misrepresentation: knowingly, recklessly or negligently presenting a wrong interpretation of data; inappropriate exclusion (or inclusion) of authors in publications arising from the work; duplicate publication
  • Mismanagement: poor record-keeping or inadequate retention of primary data
  • Breach of duty of care: revealing identity or research participants; endangering people involved in research; failure to fulfil legal requirements regarding use of animals and/or tissue samples; improper involvement in the peer review process including failure to disclose conflicts of interest

In addition to the aspects of conduct themselves, the RCUK paper also includes guidelines on the reporting and investigation of unacceptable research conduct.  Alongside the 2008 Procedure for the Investigation of Misconduct in Research (UK Research Integrity Office) and Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Projects (OECD Global Science Forum), requirements for informal and formal investigation and, where necessary disciplining by the Research Organisation hosting the affected study in detailed.

I believe that the vast majority of research in the UK is conducted to high ethical standards. For most people, the recommendations in the code will not be new, but having them in one place, and the clear indication from RCUK that funding will be linked to demonstration of high standards will hopefully serve to curb abuses (deliberate or accidental) where they do exist.

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1 Comment

  1. […] have blogged here previously about various Codes of Conduct for Scientists (see Promoting the ethical conduct of Science). This is a short update to add links to a number of other Codes of Conduct, including a recent […]


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