The government is taking various measures to raise the productivity of scientific research in Japan. Its third S&T Basic Plan, launched in 2006, calls for an investment of ¥25 trillion in research and development over the plan's 5-year implementation period. This, despite the stringent fiscal climate currently overshadowing the nation's economy. This effort to enhance scientific research notwithstanding, incidents of improper behavior in conducting research activities continue to be reported. This article introduces steps being taken by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Science Council of Japan (SCJ) to prevent improper conduct in the execution and reporting of research activities.
Measures taken by MEXT
Recently, incidents of unethical behavior by researchers have been revealed in various countries around the world. In Japan as well, such improper conduct as researchers falsifying data has been exposed. It is MEXT's position that unethical conduct violates the very essence of science, which is to seek the truth and create new knowledge. At the same time, such behavior impedes research progress by shaking people's confidence in science. It is, therefore, MEXT's fundamental stance that unethical conduct should not be tolerated.
Amidst the gloomy fiscal climate, the government is working to create a bright future for Japan by increasing the allocation for research funding from the national treasury. In the context of using these precious assets effectively, there is an ever-stronger demand for proper comportment in the conduct of research activities. To meet these expectations, MEXT's Council for Science and Technology has established a dedicated committee within its organization. The committee has delved into the background surrounding research misconduct and studied ways to eliminate it in research activities supported by grants-in-aid and other competitive research funding from the national treasury. In August 2006, the committee published the set of guidelines summarized below to define and prevent acts of research misconduct.
Synopsis of Guidelines for Responses to Research Misconduct
Imperative for proper conduct
Research functions to expand the body of existing knowledge and to generate new knowledge. As this work draws upon the achievements of others, it requires fair and factual disclosure of research results so that they can be shared and critiqued.
Generally, research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism of data or research results. Such acts violate the functional and ethical principles of research and obstruct normal flow of scientific communication within the research community. In turn, they also undermine public trust in science and obstruct scientific advancement. That research be conducted fairly and ethically is particularly important as the government is increasing its investment in science and technology amidst stringent fiscal conditions. It is incumbent, therefore, upon both individual researchers and the research community at large to adopt a rigorous stance against research misconduct.
Conditions contributing to misconduct
There are several conditions within the research environment that contribute to misconduct. They include a race to be the first to publish research results, the need to obtain continuous competitive research funding, and intense competition for research posts. Exasperating these problems is the fact that students and young researchers are not properly educated in research ethics and protocols, while self-correcting functions are not fully operational within research organizations.
Purview of Guidelines
The Guidelines set forth principles to underscore frameworks to be developed by MEXT, funding agencies, universities and other research institutions for responding to misconduct in research activities supported by competitive funding. There are 13 competitive funding systems under the jurisdiction of MEXT, including the Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research Program (administered by JSPS), 21st Century COE Program (administered by JSPS), and Private Universities Program for Advancement of Science and Technology.
The contents of the Guidelines are to be reflected in the grant application materials and consignment contracts issued by funding agencies and research institutions. These organizations are to each establish an office for receiving allegations and other information concerning research misconduct.
Making and handling allegations
When made, allegations must clearly specify the alleged offender(s) and the content of the alleged offense, while providing rational, scientific reasons for why the act is considered to constitute research misconduct. In handling allegations, the names of informants and contents of the allegations are to be maintained in strict confidentiality until the release of the investigation results. To prevent the filing of allegations with malicious intent, it shall be published that the names of persons found guilty of doing so may be publicly disclosed and disciplinary action taken against them.
Investigations of allegations are as a rule to be conducted by the research institution that employs the alleged offender. A preliminary assessment of the rationale of the allegation should be conducted right way to determine whether a formal investigation is warranted. When conducting an official investigation, an investigation committee shall be formed of members who include researchers in the subject field from other institutions.
Investigations may include the examination of scientific papers, experiment notes and other recodes, reproduction of experiments, and interviews with related persons. The accused shall also be given an opportunity to rebut the charges. All evidence and materials garnered in the investigation are to be preserved.
During investigations and preceding assessments, research institutions may suspend funding, both ongoing and pending, to the accused party until the investigation results have been determined.
If culpability is found, the committee is to determine the details of the misconduct, including the persons involved and their respective degrees of involvement, and report their findings to the research institution. Persons charged with misconduct, or with making a malicious allegation, are eligible to file an appeal.
If it is determined that misconduct was not committed, research funding suspended during the investigation shall be reinstated and measures taken to restore the reputation of the persons cleared of the allegations.
When misconduct is found to have been committed, the funding institution shall appoint a committee to deliberate and recommend what disciplinary action should be taken. Based on the committee's report, the funding institution shall decide on the appropriate action to be taken against the culpable persons. Such actions may include the termination of competitive funding, exclusion from future applications for competitive funding, and requirement to return all or portions of competitive funds already granted. As a rule, paper authors and others who are found to have committed acts of misconduct will be made ineligible to apply for competitive funding for a period of two to ten years. Persons who are not found culpable of misconduct but who were responsible in part for the published contents of the illicit research will be rendered ineligible for a period of one to three years.
Funding institutions are to make public the following information when a decision is made to take disciplinary action: names and affiliations of subject persons, details of the actions, amount of research funds involved, description of related research and misconduct, and the report of investigation results.