A sporting chance for research integrity

In 2012, a seven-time Tour de France winner leaves the sport of professional cycling in disgrace, banned for life for a history of doping offences.1 In 1984 a bay gelding returns to scale victorious – an outside chance at odds of 33-1 with its painted white markings washing off – in one of the highest profile ring-in scandals to occur in Australian Thoroughbred racing, the consequences of which still reverberate.2

But of what relevance could such sporting stories possibly be to research integrity?

Google Reference 1: Lance Armstrong
Google Reference 2: Fine Cotton

Fresh to the role of a Research Integrity Officer, I asked who OREI consulted with and learnt from when it came to building cultures of integrity and developing best practice approaches for handling allegations of misconduct. Naturally, the answer was ‘other academic institutions and research organisations’.

It makes obvious sense that like institutions would be the primary source for such information. However, challenges in maintaining integrity and regulating prescribed conduct don’t only occur in the research context. Such challenges arise across professions and occupational sectors (such as the legal profession and police force, both of which have their own integrity oversight bodies) and recent headlines have drawn attention to similar challenges as faced from within the Australian political environment.

Bearing this in mind, ‘misconduct’ and ‘questions of integrity’ cannot be thought of as exclusive to the research environment. Such phenomena affect multiple and unrelated fields, with the only peculiarity being how they are expressed in their respective environments.

By acknowledging that issues in integrity and compliance occur across a broader landscape than just the research sector, these alternative fields offer numerous other sources of advice and experience from which OREI’s efforts to refine and develop current practice may benefit.

[Cue sport].

1. Sporting authorities, what of them?

1.1 Parallels between the role of sporting authorities and offices such as OREI

Sporting authorities represent a prime example of institutions from an alternative field, all with a particular knowledge and experience in handling allegations of ‘prohibited conduct’ (to use the more common sporting phrase) and ensuring the integrity of their product.

Generally speaking, sporting authorities are responsible for ensuring events are conducted fairly and according to the rules of the particular code and/or applicable statutory requirements; that any breaches of the rules or statutory requirements are remedied; that participants compete on their merits, and that the sport is conducted safely. These criteria ensure the integrity of the sporting product; only when all are met and operating effectively does public confidence in the sport follow.

Within the various sporting codes, maintenance of sporting integrity is usually furthermore achieved with the support of code-specific disciplinary and appeals tribunals. Specifically constituted by individuals with knowledge of the sport, these tribunals are responsible for determining on the balance of probabilities whether a breach of the rules has occurred and whether the conduct requires sanction.

Considering sporting authorities in this light, obvious parallels appear with OREI’s own responsibilities and functions for ensuring that research is conducted honestly and in accordance with the various codes of conduct for research; that breaches of these codes or a departure from expected standards of research integrity are adequately responded to; and that researchers conduct their work ethically, responsibly and safely. Similarly, these criteria ensure the integrity of research processes and output, foundational for the continued public confidence and support of research.

Moreover, there are also obvious parallels between the operation of Review Panels tasked with determining whether (on the balance of probabilities) research misconduct has occurred and whether any disciplinary or corrective action is required.

1.2 Issues in sporting integrity and the prescribed conduct of participants

The two examples provided at the very start of this post don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the innumerable and well documented threats to sporting integrity experienced to date.

Concerns about integrity in sport has come to plague particular codes and the range of associated issues are only expanding with (for example) the development of more specific methods for avoiding detection of doping offences and the rise of international live-betting on sporting events. Recent (long-running) local examples of doping in sport demonstrate the complexity of such matters, the number of stakeholders implicated and affected, and the cost of a public loss of confidence in the sport.

In response to this very real threat, sporting authorities have developed important practices for handling allegations of misconduct and measures intended to build and maintain cultures of integrity and compliance. Such include:

  • Banning individuals from participation whilst allegations of misconduct are being investigated;
  • Taking action (including disciplinary action) against vexatious Complainants;
  • Requiring that Tribunals responsible for hearing allegations of misconduct include a member with appropriate legal qualifications or experience;
  • Mandatory disclosure requirements for participants approached by another and asked to engage in misconduct;
  • Partnering with Betting Operators (having a shared interest in the integrity of the sporting product) to ensure the ongoing integrity of competitions and events;
  • Establishment of a centralised office for handling integrity matters arising within the sport.

Without suggesting the wholesale adoption of these measures to the research environment, they do pose interesting questions about alternative responses to research misconduct and options for fostering research integrity. Applying similar practices to the research environment, organisations may wish to consider:

  • The possibility of temporarily banning research involvement or student supervision whilst allegations of misconduct are being investigated;
  • Taking action against vexatious Complainants;
  • Requiring that Review Panels for handling allegations of misconduct include a legally qualified or experienced member;
  • Greater collaboration and sharing of information across journal editors and members of peer review, and the research organisation – all of whom have a mutual interest in the integrity of research outputs;
  • Support for establishment of a national office of Research Integrity with powers to: investigate integrity processes of the research organisation; refer allegations to appropriate authorities; investigate matters referred by the research organisation; and conduct own motion enquiries

2. But forget the examples, here’s the real lesson…

However applicable the examples provided above may or may not be to a particular research organisation is beside the point. The aim of this Blog has not been to advocate for a particular change or set of practices for promoting research integrity, but to highlight the existence of such alternative organisations and provide some insight into the different ways in which they foster and maintain cultures of integrity.

Sporting authorities are a prime example of organisations from an alternative field with: a considerable history dealing with issues in integrity and regulating prohibited conduct; a developed a bank of knowledge and experience in this area as a result; and currently facing new challenges as they seek to protect the integrity of their product.

By acknowledging the expertise of these alternative organisations and thinking laterally about how their approaches may be applied within a research context, offices such as OREI stand to benefit in the development of more comprehensive and well-informed best practice approaches.

A lot of background work informing this Blog comes from a poster presented at the ARMS 2014 conference with my co-authors Dr Paul Taylor and Dr Daniel Barr. My thanks for their assistance.

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Kim Gilliland