Investigation of research misconduct
Npof investigates research misconduct only
The sole function of the National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (Npof) is to examine issues of misconduct in research. Npof is not authorised to investigate other breaches of good practice.
Research misconduct is defined as:
“a serious deviation from good research practice in the form of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism that is committed intentionally or through gross negligence when planning, conducting or reporting research.” (Section 2 of the Act on responsibility for good research practice and the examination of research misconduct [Swedish Code of Statutes 2019:504]; below, “the Act”.)
How the process works
This is an administrative law process, meaning that the process is done in writing. The course of case management may vary, depending on the complexity of the matters addressed and how much new material the Office needs to obtain. The flowchart below illustrates the procedure adopted in most cases.
On a continuous basis, Npof’s caseworker updates the respondent (alleged researcher) on how the case is progressing.
Respondents who are invited to express their views have two to three weeks in which to write the statement.
An expert is engaged if the case requires any special in-depth investigation by an expert. The expert called in, if any, is usually given one month to investigate the matters Npof has requested.
Before Npof decides in the case, the respondent is notified of all material with a bearing on the decision, unless this clearly is unnecessary, and then also given the opportunity to comment on the material.
Five-stage assessment process
Npof’s investigation comprises five stages. If any one of these is not completed, we discontinue the process and issue no ruling on the subsequent stages.
- Is the research that the allegation report concerns subject to the Act?
- Is planning, conducting or reporting of research involved?
- If so, does the case involve fabrication, falsification or plagiarism?
- If so, is the offence a serious breach of good research practice?
- If so, was the offence committed intentionally or through gross negligence?
1. Is the research that the allegation report concerns subject to the Act?
Under Section 3, the Act covers research carried out by:
- higher education institutions for which the Swedish state is the entity responsible, and which are covered by the Swedish Higher Education Act (1992:1434)
- other government agencies
- the state in the form of a limited company, if the company’s operations are regulated by law or other statute, or if the state, as owner or by contributing state funding, by agreement or otherwise, has a decisive influence over the operations
- the state in the form of a foundation, if the foundation’s activities are regulated by law or other statute, or if the foundation is formed by, or jointly with, the state or administered by a government agency
- municipalities and/or regions
- limited companies, trading companies, economic associations and foundations in which municipalities and/or regions exert legally decisive influence
- individual education providers that are authorised to issue academic degrees under the Act (1993:792) on authorisation to issue certain degrees.
“Researcher” is not a protected professional title, and the term is not defined by law. However, the preparatory work for the Act on responsibility for good research practice and the examination of research misconduct makes it clear that individuals currently engaged in or who have previously undergone doctoral studies, and who are taking part in research, count as researchers. Others taking part in research work, such as students at basic (undergraduate, first-cycle) or advanced (Master’s, second-cycle) level, and also technical and administrative staff, should not count as researchers.
2. Planning, conducting or reporting research?
Under Section 4 of the Act, researchers are responsible for complying with good research practice in their work.
This responsibility includes, for example, not being dishonest and not contravening laws and recognised standards of research ethics.
When the legislator imposed the requirement that the serious breach must have occurred during “research planning, implementation or reporting”, the intention was that breaches throughout the research process should be included. “Reporting” refers both to publication and to other types of disclosure. (Govt. Bill 2018/19:58.)
3. Fabrication, falsification or plagiarism
It is Npof’s task to examine these forms of misconduct. The legislator opted not to define these terms in the Act, but the Government Bill states that they are clarified in research ethics codes and guidelines, such as the European Code of Research Integrity. They are also explained in the Swedish Research Council’s publication Good Research Practice.
Fabrication – is making up results and recording them as if they were real.
Falsification – is manipulating research materials, equipment or processes or changing, omitting or suppressing data or results without justification.
Plagiarism – is using other people’s work and ideas without giving proper credit to the original source, thus violating the rights of the original author(s) to their intellectual outputs.
4. Serious breach of good research practice
According to the preparatory work, fabrication and falsification are, as a main rule, deemed to be serious breaches of good research practice. In some cases, plagiarism should not be considered a serious breach of good practice if, for example, it amounts only to a minor infraction on a single occasion. The question of whether the fabrication, falsification or plagiarism concerned is a serious breach of good research practice must, however, be assessed on an individual basis, according to the facts of every specific case.
5. Intent or gross negligence
Under Section 2 of the Act, a serious breach from good research practice must, to be a matter of research misconduct, have been committed with intent or gross negligence. “Intent” means that the researcher must have realised what (s)he has done, while “negligence” means that, in any case, the researcher should have understood this. “Gross negligence” requires the conduct to stand out as particularly serious or reprehensible. As a rule, oversights, carelessness or misunderstandings should not be regarded as gross negligence.
Npof’s investigation of research misconduct may not be based on circumstances predating the initiation of the case by more than ten years unless there are special reasons for such investigation.
“Special reasons” refers, for example, to cases where the alleged misconduct has had, or risks having, major or serious repercussions on research or society at large. This might involve human health or, for example, the design of processes, methods or products. Another special reason may be that Npof wishes to examine previous research conducted by researchers who have been guilty of misconduct. (Govt. Bill 2018/19:58.)