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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 58 | No 4 | April 2011

Enforcement needed

Back Print
We are pleased Penni Stewart (President’s Column, Bulletin, March 2011) has brought attention to the importance of research integrity in Canadian universities. We have been investigating this topic for almost two years and have discovered that research fraud and misconduct are worldwide problems. (Readers are invited to take our online survey).

While we encourage the development and implementation of national standards, our research suggests this is not sufficient. What is frequently missing are meaningful consequences for research fraud and misconduct — both for the offending researcher and his/her host university. Standards without a means of enforcement are hollow deterrents. Serious violators need to be fined, fired from their positions, and barred from publishing and from receiving research funding.

This rarely happens except in heavily publicized cases. Institutions which are negligent in disciplining researchers who commit fraud or other research misconduct, or who willfully turn a blind eye, such as by ignoring whistleblowers, also need to be sanctioned.

Canadian universities and researchers are frequently oblivious to the fact that when they publish fraudulent findings, or findings that are deficient because of sloppy or negligent research design or analysis, other researchers, industry, government and consumers unknowingly reply upon these findings, believing they have empirical validity. Potentially, there can be legal liability for damages incurred by researchers who are led astray or consumers who die or are injured by using the products of flawed research.

Residing in Canada in no safe haven for research fraud that impacts those in other countries. Indeed, most U.S. state-level courts can assert jurisdiction over foreign tortfeasors under Long Arm Statutes.

We believe that two important steps taken in other countries to assure research integrity are anti-retaliation whistleblower protection laws and laws awarding financial incentives to whistleblowers who disclose fraud and misconduct involving public funds. For example, California’s Whistleblower Protection Act and False Claims Act offer important protections for university employees who report research misconduct. Severe penalties are assessed against those who retaliate against whistleblowers.

The U.S. Federal Tort Claims Act, as well as state-level equivalents, enables whistleblowers to share in the recovery of misused public funds, including taxpayer money used to fund and disseminate fraudulent research.

Canada is unique in lacking any equivalent protections at either the federal or provincial level. While Canadian universities may enact feel-good regulations that encourage the reporting of research misconduct, they will be ineffective since the risks of retaliation within one’s university are real and without remedy. We view the implementation of such internal regulations as an acknowledgement of the seriousness of research fraud and misconduct and the need to articulate high standards, but lacking the courage to take the next logical step of enacting an effective method of enforcement.

Indeed, these policies or “rules” may ultimately be simply cosmetically appealing, politically correct half measures that create the illusion a university is serious about assuring truthful and competent research. The “fraud” of implementing toothless internal regulations dealing with research misconduct and whistleblower protection within Canadian universities may be as bad as or worse than the misconduct itself.

W. Andrew Harrell
Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta
Attorney at Law, Long Beach, California

Jennifer A. Boisvert
Clinical Psychologist & Mediator
Alberta & California