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Questions raised about disclosure of Canadian research-policy breaches

The Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research is in charge of implementing a “tri-agency framework” for research conduct funded by three federal agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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A panel set up in 2011 to review alleged breaches of research policies set by Canada's three federal research agencies has found problems with almost half of the files it had reviewed by March of this year, including plagiarism and mismanagement of agency funds.

But to date, the Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research has issued only one public disclosure statement: a 2016 notice related to Dr. Sophie Jamal, a Toronto doctor declared permanently ineligible for federal funding last year after an investigating committee found she had manipulated study data.

Dr. Jamal resigned from positions at Women's College Hospital and the University of Toronto while the investigation was in process, the disclosure notice states.

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Details of other breaches – such as the names of researchers involved or where they work – have not been disclosed, although a 2017 report provides a summary of the number of files reviewed. Of 192 files closed over the past five years, 83 – or 43 per cent – involved at least one breach of the responsible conduct of research protocol.

To some, that's a disappointing track record.

"Our point of view is that, yes, there should be much more transparency," Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that tracks retractions of scientific articles, said in an interview.

The low number of public disclosures to date reflects updated disclosure requirements that have yet to show up in the panel's work, and the relatively low number of serious breaches that occur, said Susan Zimmerman, executive director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research in Ottawa.

The secretariat is in charge of implementing a "tri-agency framework" for research conduct funded by three federal agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Since November, 2011, researchers have been required to sign a consent form that stipulates their identities can be disclosed in the event they are found to have committed a serious breach of conduct.

According to an agency framework, the president of a respective agency, such as the CIHR, determines whether a breach is serious, based on the extent to which it "jeopardizes the safety of the public or brings the conduct of research into disrepute."

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Examples of serious breaches include recruiting human participants into a study with significant risks or harms without Research Ethics Board approval.

Without that requirement, the panel would be bound by the the federal Privacy Act, which includes a provision that allows for personal information to be disclosed when public interest "clearly outweighs" any invasion of privacy that could result.

"That was a relatively high bar – it could certainly be considered when public health or safety was at stake … we felt that was too constraining," said Ms. Zimmerman.

Given the time involved in applying for grants, conducting research and any alleged breaches to take place or be reported, it could take time for those cases to make it to the panel, she said.

"We think this is an important exception and will provide greater transparency over time, but it's still young," she said.

Even once those disclosure provisions kick in, Ms. Zimmerman said she does not expect to see more than a handful of cases each year that would involve public disclosure.

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When allegations of misconduct or breach of research policies are made, individual institutions that get federal research funds – such as the University of British Columbia or the University of Toronto – investigate allegations. That process, depending on the allegations and any appeals, including legal action, can take years.

Once those investigations are complete, the results go to the secretariat, which anonymizes the findings – taking out the names of the people and institutions involved – before passing the findings to an independent panel.

The panel's recommendations then go to the president of the federal agency involved, who makes the final call as to what action, if any, should be taken in relation to a given breach – still based on an anonymized file. Once that decision is made, the secretariat sends letters to the people and institutions involved.

It's only then that the president of the federal agency – who has to sign the letters – officially learns the identities of people and institutions involved.

Anonymity protects complainants and those accused of wrong-doing, Ms. Zimmerman said.

"We know that there's a concern about whistle-blowers, for example, and respondents as well are sometimes falsely accused – or accused in good faith, and the allegations turn out to be unfounded," Ms. Zimmerman said.

"We try to protect that as much as possible."

Recourse ranges from the mild – an "awareness/education" letter – to the more severe, including a ban on receiving federal funds.

The three federal agencies support hundreds of researchers and projects; CIHR alone spends about $1-billion a year on health research.

In a report earlier this year, a federal science panel recommended boosting annual research spending from about $3.5-billion a year today to $4.8-billion in 2022.

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