Sweden has passed a law to create a government agency to investigate research misconduct. On June 18, the Swedish Parliament passed the law to create the Research Misconduct Board, which will become active in January 2020 and oversee cases of misconduct from public higher education institutions, central government agencies, municipalities, county councils, and private education providers. This move comes after a series of high-profile scientific misconduct cases in the last few years, Nature reported yesterday (July 9).
At the moment, institutions investigate allegations internally. This can lead to cases not being treated fairly or to a lack of transparency, Karin Åmossa, head of research and international affairs at the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers, tells Nature.
In one case that arose in 2015, trachea surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who was at Karolinksa Institute at the time, was accused of misconduct relating to experimental trachea transplants. Some of the transplant experiments ended in the patients’ deaths. The Karolinska Institute initially cleared Macchiarini of allegations of misconduct, but an independent investigation commissioned by the institute later found that he had committed misconduct. Another independent commission in 2016 stated that the institute’s procedures were flawed, according to Nature.
The Macchiarini case changed the whole landscape of research misconduct investigation in Sweden, says Margaretha Fahlgren of Uppsala University who led the inquiry of Machiarini. “It became very messy.”
In another case of research misconduct in 2017, a paper in Science that claimed microplastic pollution harmed fish was investigated by Uppsala University, where the two authors of the study were based. The investigation by the university cleared the paper’s authors. But the case was then referred to a research misconduct committee of Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board for an independent investigation. This investigation found that the researchers had committed misconduct, and the paper was retracted.
The new government agency will handle all allegations of serious research misconduct to standardize investigations, as different universities may disagree on what falls under misconduct. Still, some critics of the decision feel that the universities and institutions should carry out investigations. “If universities cannot be trusted to carry out responsible investigations, why should we trust them with any research funding?” Nicholas Steneck an independent research-integrity consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan tells Nature.
The Swedish government states that the institutions have a conflict of interest, making it difficult to conduct unbiased investigations. “It has also proven problematic for higher education institutions to investigate themselves while also protecting their own reputation,” according to a statement on the Swedish government website. “Even if such an investigation is conducted impeccably, the clash of interests may result in reduced competence in both the investigation and the higher education institution.”
Following the result of the Macchiarini case, Fahlgren hopes that create this agency will increase public trust in research. “The research community has been very highly trusted by the public,” she tells Nature, “but we had this big scandal. It changed the public image of research and researchers.”
Chia-Yi Hou is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.