Responsible Conduct of Research

In June 2018, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council published the second version of their Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, replacing the original 2007 edition.

Cover of Australian Code 2018

The 2018 issue of the code replaces the original 2007 version

This is an outstanding document that deserves a prominent role internationally in guiding the promotion and maintenance of ethical conduct in research. As the preamble notes, the Code seeks to spell out the “broad principles that characterise an honest, ethical and conscientious research culture” (p1).

The list of 8 principles, 13 responsibilities for institutions and 16 responsibilities for researchers are clearly articulated and readily transferable to other contexts.  Only a couple of items in the code, pertaining to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are specifically “Australian”, and it might be argued that these only exemplify what ought to be good practice for engagement with any biogeographical community.

As noted above, the clarity of the contents is exemplary. Interested parties are therefore encouraged to read the original document (A copy of the Code is available via this link). For those with limited time, the top line of the 8 principles are:

  1. Honesty in the development, undertaking and reporting of research
  2. Rigour in the development, undertaking and reporting of research
  3. Transparency in declaring interests and reporting research methodology, data and findings
  4. Fairness in the treatment of others
  5. Respect for research participants, the wider community, animals and the environment
  6. Recognition of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be engaged in research that affects or is of particular significance to them
  7. Accountability for the development, undertaking and reporting of research
  8. Promotion of responsible research practices



In praise of Psychology (as an A level)

Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?

Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?

I don’t think this warrant’s a spoiler alert, but if you don’t know the punchline of Green Eggs and Ham, you may want to skip to the next paragraph. In Dr Seuss’s classic book, the central protagonist is pestered by Sam-I-Am to try the eponymous delicacy. The man declines, insisting that he does not like green eggs and ham. When, however, he is finally persuaded to give it a try he find that, contrary to expectation, he is actually rather partial to this culinary concoction.

It seems to me that there are a good few people around who have a Green Eggs and Ham approach to A level Psychology. The Russell Group universities do not consider it in their list of “facilitating” (i.e. those it considers worthy-of-study) A level subjects*. Similarly, the snooty attitude of my elder son’s previous school in not offering Psychology was one of the main factors in the decision for him to move for his sixth form studies.

AS level psychology includes thorough evaluation of key studies

AS level psychology includes thorough evaluation of key studies

My suspicion, however, is that a significant proportion of those shunning Psychology have never actually looked into the content of the course. If they had done so, they might have been in for a pleasant surprise. Over the last few days, whilst helping the aforementioned sprog with his revision, I have been reminded of just how good the content of the AS level is (at least for the OCR specifications, I can’t speak for the course offered by the other boards).

The course is built around analysis of 15 classic studies. There are good descriptions of what has been done and why. However the feature for me that really makes the content valuable is the emphasis on evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each study. The lessons about the importance of reliability and validity of data would be good grounding for students wanting to do a degree in any of the sciences. The discussion of ethical issues and, where applicable, what the investigators did to mitigate against them is also applicable for anyone intending to conduct research at any level.

On the basis of some of the manuscripts I’ve reviewed over the years, I couldn’t help feeling as well that there are a number of university-level teachers setting out for the first time to do pedagogic research who might usefully pick up on some of the do’s and dont’s of experimental design onto which this course sheds some light.

So, in short, I have had a Green Eggs and Ham conversion regarding A level Psychology and, with apologies to Dr Seuss, I say to  “the Russell Group” and others who dismiss it out of hand, “Try it, try it and you may. Try it and you may I say”. Oh, and if you really didn’t know the ending of GE&H… sorry.

*If you are interested the facilitating subjects are: Maths and further maths; Physics; Biology; Chemistry; History; Geography; Modern and classical languages; English Literature.

More on Codes of Conduct

The ESF has recently published a code of conduct

I 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 addition from the European Science Foundation. There is no particular selection criteria in operation regarding the Codes listed here, beyond:
(i) I’m aware of them,
(ii) they have relevance for bioscientists.

The Codes are listed in alphabetical order according to the responsible organisation. Please let me know if you are aware of obvious omissions.

American Society of Microbiology Code of Ethics (revised 2005)

European Science Foundation/ALL Europe Academies The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2011)

Government Office for Science (UK) Rigour, Respect, Responsibility: A universal ethical code for scientists (2007)

International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Code of Ethics (2005)

Research Councils UK Integrity, Clarity and Good Management: RCUK policy and code of conduct on the governance of good research conduct (2009)

UK Research Integrity Office Code of Practice for Research: Promoting good practice and preventing misconduct (2009)

Research involving adults lacking capacity

Adherence to the ethical and legal guidelines can be problematic in any research. These difficulties are potentially compounded if the research involves adults who are lacking capacity to consent to their participation.

The toolkit can be found at

The National Research Ethics Service (NRES) have recently published an online toolkit to help researchers, members of research ethics committees, and institutional research managers to ensure that projects fit with the legal requirements (for example, adherence to the Mental Capacity Act in England and Wales). The toolkit was developed at the University of Leicester and is primarily the brainchild of Emma Angell and Mary Dixon-Woods, with input from Ainsley Newson at the University of Bristol and with a little help from me.

The toolkit is split into Clinical Trials Involving Medicinal Products (CTIMPs) and non-CTIMPs to reflect the fundamental differences in the structuring and administration of each type of activity. There is also a separate section on emergency research.

We would value your feedback on the toolkit – please feel free to post comments here.

How widespread is scientific misconduct?

From time to time examples of scientific fraud come to light and raise questions about the integrity of scientific endeavour. The most well-known example of recent years must surely be South Korean stem cell biologist Hwang Woo-Suk, whose ground-breaking discoveries in the field of therapeutic cloning were exposed as bogus (In addition to his science reputation being in tatters, Hwang was convicted in October 2009 of embezzlement and violation of bioethical laws, although he escaped a custodial sentence).

In physics, the multiple re-use of the same graphs as data for entirely different experiments led to the downfall of a leading young nanoscientist (this was the subject of a 2004 episode of the BBC’s Horizon series The dark secret of Hendrik Schön). Are Hwang and Schön rare examples bringing unwarranted criticism to a body of otherwise exemplary scientists, or are their crimes indicative of much wider malpractice within the scientific community?


University of Edinburgh researcher Daniele Fanelli has shed some light on the the extend of scientific fraud in an article How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. Published in the open access journal PLoS ONE in May 2009, the research brought together data from a number of earlier smaller studies on scientific misconduct to generate “the first meta-analysis of these surveys” (p1).

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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