Conference agrees global science ethics code

Lim Chuan Poh: publish or perish is a driving concept for researchers. Copyright: A*STAR

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Concerns that research fraud is on the rise have led science leaders from across the world to put together a set of principles and a voluntary code on research integrity.

The principles, intended to serve as a "guide for professionally responsible research practices throughout the world", were debated at the Second World Conference on Research Integrity, in Singapore last week (21−24 July) and will be published in a few weeks as the ‘Singapore Statement on Research Integrity’.

They will aim to rise above cultural differences over definitions of misconduct and to have a broader appeal than existing codes, drawn up by the European Science Foundation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Today’s codes fail to account for nascent science structures in developing countries or the research aspirations of emerging nations in Asia and Latin America, the conference heard.

The guidelines will stick to principles, rather than specifying in detail what rules should be put in place, said Carthage Smith, deputy executive director of the France-based International Council for Science.

Once global principles are accepted, each country can adapt the international code to its national system, he said.

"All countries are affected by research integrity so we can no longer bury our heads in the sand," Smith said after the meeting, which was attended by 350 researchers, policymakers, donors, university leaders and academic publishers from 58 countries.

"It is an issue that is as big a problem in the East and the West. We are all in this together."

"In Asia, more and more universities are trying to excel in science," said Ovid Tzeng, a fellow of Taipei’s Academia Sinica and a former education minister of Taiwan. "It becomes a question of ‘face’ and national pride and they provide monetary rewards — so then we find misconduct."

Some countries, such as India, have no national code of conduct and no government body responsible for scientific integrity. "The science bureaucracy seems to prefer to turn a blind eye to major misconduct cases," said Ashima Anand of the Society for Scientific Values, in New Delhi, an independent science ethics watchdog.

A common complaint from Africa was that scientists are prevented from acquiring the status of lead author in papers arising from collaborations with Western colleagues. Meanwhile, journal editors complained about authors’ names from China and South Korea which bear no relation to the scientists who actually did the research.

"The notion of ‘publish or perish’ is a very real fear among many budding, as well as established, researchers," Lim Chuan Poh, chairman of A*STAR, Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, told the conference.

"Given the increased research efforts across the world, this fear is only going to increase."