What is Research Integrity?

Research Integrity (or Responsible Conduct of Research, RCR) is a research ethics code to be followed in Finland outlining what is good scientific practice from a research ethics perspective.

The guidelines are a voluntary commitment of the scientific community to follow the principles of research integrity and are not based on, for example, legislation or regulations. However, this does not mean that the Research Integrity guidelines could be taken lightly.

Finnish research organisations and universities are explicitly committed to the responsible conduct of research, which means that their researchers must follow these guidelines. If you are not yet familiar with the guidelines, you should acquaint yourself with them as soon as possible.

Violations of research integrity refer to the unethical and dishonest practices that damage scientific research. Violations of research integrity consist of actions that may have been committed either intentionally or through negligence.

The violations of research integrity can be classified into the following:

  • Research misconduct, and
  •  Disregard for the responsible conduct of research

In addition to the two categories mentioned above, the guidelines address other irresponsible practices that, at their most serious, may meet the criteria for violations of research integrity.

Alleged violations are addressed in the RCR process

Allegations of fraud or disregard for the responsible conduct of research are dealt with according to the process of handling alleged violations of the responsible conduct of research, otherwise known as the RCR process.

The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers assists its members in these processes and, if research ethics issues are being considered, it is a good idea to contact the Union at the earliest possible stage. Becoming a party to an RCR process is such a serious matter that it is usually worth seeking help from the Union. The Union lawyers are familiar with RCR cases and the process and are able to assist the researcher both when they suspect that they have been subjected to an RCR violation and in situations where they are suspected of an RCR violation.

It should be noted that only the ethical aspects of research can be clarified in the RCR process, and not any relevant criminal, copyright, employment, or other legal issues. Very often, however, there is, for example, workplace bullying or other occupational safety issues in the background of the RCR process. However, these issues cannot be addressed in the RCR process but must be addressed, for example, in the research organisation’s occupational safety and health process. However, an act which constitutes a violation of the responsible conduct of research may in itself also violate the law.

The investigation procedure for alleged violations of the responsible conduct of research involves three steps. The process starts with what is known as a written RCR notification. A written and reasoned notification of the allegation is made by the injured party to the research organisation where the suspect of the RCR violation is usually employed. A notification of alleged violation should be made to the organisation in which the research was principally conducted. The organisation in question, usually the university, will then decide to launch a possible preliminary inquiry. The purpose of the preliminary inquiry is to make a preliminary assessment of the relevance of the alleged violations in the notification and the grounds put forward in support of them.

The inclusion of a case in a preliminary inquiry takes place at a very low threshold and, in practice, only in situations where it is clear that it is not a case of a violation against the responsible conduct of research can a preliminary inquiry not be initiated. The RCR process may end with a preliminary inquiry if it is established that the allegation of violation is unfounded and therefore there is no need to conduct an investigation proper into the matter.

If, after the preliminary inquiry, there is still reason to suspect a violation of the responsible conduct of research or research fraud, the investigation proper must be initiated.  After the investigation proper, a decision is made on the matter.

If the university does not initiate a preliminary inquiry or consider later that an investigation proper should be initiated or a party to the process is otherwise dissatisfied with the process, the instigator of the allegation or the person accused of misconduct or a violation may request a statement from the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK). The Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity may refer the matter back to the research organisation.

RCR processes are usually quite long and can take up to several years. Unfortunately, there are quite large differences in the level of expertise of universities in the management of RCR processes, and the Union has on several occasions had to intervene in the course of the processes because they have not been implemented properly. Considerably more attention should be paid to the implementation of the RCR process in accordance with the TENK guidelines.

Alleged violations against the RCR is a serious matter

It is a serious matter if a researcher is found guilty of an RCR violation, such as research fraud. Committing a violation against the responsible conduct of research can have a number of consequences, such as the loss of the reputation important for the researcher, as well as various labour law sanctions, such as a reprimand or a written warning.

In addition, among other things, the Academy of Finland’s funding terms and conditions state that if a researcher applying for funding from the Academy has been found guilty of research fraud during the previous three years, the Academy’s Administrative Office will reject the application. If the information about the fraud is revealed during the grant period, the three-year period will be extended for the remaining grant period. If an appeal against a violation decision produces an acquittal, new applications for funding made by the researcher will be processed normally.

RCR violation situations also require that the situation be remedied as effectively as possible afterwards. For example, if one of the authors of a scientific article is omitted as the author, the infringed author must be added as an author of the article retrospectively, even if it is inconvenient.

Clarity and agreement prevent Research Integrity disputes

It is particularly important to remember that each researcher is responsible for their own part in adhering to research ethics. The fact that a research team or unit has been found to act in a research-ethically questionable way does not protect the individual researcher in the RCR process, but everyone is responsible for their own actions as well as for resisting research-ethically questionable practices, even if it is difficult. It is good to sometimes ensure that, for example, the activities of one’s own research group are ethically justified.

The RCR violation notification often comes as a complete surprise to the alleged person, but its implications for a researcher’s career can be overwhelming. It is worthwhile to document your own research ethics, if possible, so that you can prove your processes later, if necessary. For example, research permits should be requested or applied for in writing, not just agreed orally.

RCR processes very often involve authorship as well as the use of different materials. It is really important to always remember to agree in good time and in writing on how to work in a collaborative research process. It should be possible to submit written documentation on matters ethically relevant to research ethics, as, unfortunately, informal oral discussions often do not help the researcher alleged of RCR violation in the RCR process.

As stated in the Research Integrity guidelines:
“Before beginning the research or recruiting the researchers, all parties within the research project or team (the employer, the principal investigator, and the team members) agree on the researchers’ rights, responsibilities, and obligations, principles concerning authorship, and questions concerning archiving and accessing the data. These agreements may be further specified during the course of the research.” 

Transparency, respect, clarity, and proper written agreements facilitate everyone’s work and prevent unnecessary RCR processes.