Academics could soon be officially sanctioned for “unjustified” self-quotations or claiming authorship, despite contributing little to a project under a new code of conduct that could set a global trend.
The new rules in Switzerland are considered to be groundbreaking, as they drastically expand the definition of scientific misconduct and include dubious behavior that has been scrutinized more and more carefully, but has so far only rarely been covered by official rules.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time that a code of conduct has been added to a code of conduct by a respected academic organization to include several additional dimensions of how scientific work is done, credited, recognized, cited and appropriated,” said John Ioannidis, research process expert at Stanford University, who has drawn attention to extreme self-citations by scholars.
Academic misconduct is traditionally defined as forgery and forgery – compilation or manipulation of data – plus plagiarism. For example, the US National Science Foundation still largely defines misconduct in these terms.
In recent years, however, there have been increasing calls for this definition to be broadened as other forms of shady behavior emerge, including “citation farms” where authors collect citations from their own or co-author papers.
The abuse of writers, in which supervisors or editors use their power to put their names on paper without work, has also received growing attention.
The new Swiss Code of Conduct defines these two practices as well as a large number of others as scientific misconduct and provides for sanctions ranging from retraining to dismissal.
The overhaul began after the country’s national funder internally concluded that Switzerland – and indeed every country – was vulnerable to a repeat of the Paolo Macchiarini scandal, which saw a Swiss-Italian thoracic surgeon launch a widespread research fraud the President Edwin Constable told the group of experts who created the new code.
“We realized that our 2008 Code of Conduct is out of date,” he said. Since then, online testing of new forms of misconduct – either on social media or via new online platforms such as Retraction Watch or PubPeer – has become part of scientific life, said Professor Constable, chemistry professor at the University of Basel.
The new code “significantly” “expanded” the definition of misconduct by including questionable research practices and was unprecedented at the national level, said Katerina Guba, director of the Center for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education at the European University in St. Petersburg.
“Today scientists have to publish a lot more than they do to get an academic position,” she said. “Intense competition leads to the fact that ethical boundaries besides the three ‘main sins’ of research behavior – forgery, forgery and plagiarism – are exceeded.”
The challenge for the new code, however, is to draw the line between acceptable academic practice and real misconduct. For example, in order to be able to judge whether self-citation is legitimate or whether an attempt is being made to inflate metrics, “one has to dig deep into a situation,” said Dr. Guba.
“I definitely appreciate trying to clear up a very murky subject like wrongdoing,” said Mario Biagioli, distinguished professor of law and communications at the University of California at Los Angeles and one of those who called for a revision of the definition of wrongdoing to have .
“But I’m also surprised at how they declare certain practices ‘wrong’ without really thinking deeply about what such practices are and whether they can actually be captured by these definitions.”
The Swiss measures deal not only with citation and copyright abuse, but also with poor management. “Neglect of the duty of care and supervision” is classified as misconduct.
“Abuse of a management function to trigger, promote or cover up violations of scientific integrity” and “any form of harassment or discrimination” are also classified as such.
Under the new Swiss Code, accusers have “the right to confidentiality”. In practice, however, it will likely be difficult to uphold, Professor Constable admitted, as many allegations of misconduct inevitably identify the accuser.
Conversely, “the assertion of a violation of scientific integrity without a valid reason” is also a form of misconduct, says the Code.
It is now up to the highly autonomous Swiss universities to implement the new code and set up arbitration, investigation and sanctioning bodies to deal with complaints about misconduct.
The Swissuniversities, which represent the country’s institutions, developed the code together with the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences and the country’s innovation agency.
Professor Constable said the rectors’ reaction had been “very positive”.
The widening of the scope of the misconduct brought with it the risk for university directors that their “star researchers would be denounced in the press” if they were sanctioned under the new rules. However, the consequences of not updating the rules on the reputation of the institutions would be “far worse,” he warned.