New commission battles scientific research fraud


Flanders’ universities can now call on a commission to offer a second opinion in cases of scientific fraud

Flemish Commission for Scientific Integrity offers assistance to universities

Flemish universities have joined together to establish a Flemish Commission for Scientific Integrity. The commission will offer a second opinion in cases of scientific fraud at local institutions and knowledge centres and will also offer advice on more general questions of scientific integrity. The commission plans to become an expertise centre on research fraud and hopes to stimulate open, frank discussion of the problem.

Although the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO) first made plans for the project in 2011, it comes in the wake of a number of recent, high-profile fraud cases at Flemish universities. And in a survey conducted last spring by Flemish science magazine Eos, one in 12 Flemish researchers admitted to having manipulated results to confirm their hypotheses.

Since the University of Hasselt established its own commission earlier this year, every Flemish university now has one. If scientists see unethical practices and want to report them, they can first contact the commission at their own institution. After an investigation, the commission judges whether fraud has indeed been committed and, if necessary, can take action. 
This was where the story usually ended. Now, if either party is not satisfied with the decision, they can ask the newly minted commission for a second opinion. University commissions can also contact the organisation for advice prior to making a decision. The final say, however, remains with the local institutions.

The Eos survey revealed that scientists often see suspect practices but are not inclined to report them. “Researchers fear that a complaint will damage their own position,” the president of the commission, professor André Van Steirteghem, said in an interview with Eos. “Universities need to have clear contact points, neutral institutions where a complaint can be discussed without any prejudices.”

In the Netherlands, a similar umbrella organisation has been in place since 2003. Reports of research fraud are published on the organisation’s website anonymously, and Dutch universities often make cases public.

Van Steirteghem expressed his hope for a similar transparency in Flanders. “Universities have to stop thinking that the fraud is their fault,” he said. “It’s a global phenomenon.” By publishing the cases anonymously, the commission hopes to dissuade other scientists from making the same mistakes.

The commission’s other founding members are the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, the Royal Academy of Medicine in Belgium and the Flemish Agency for Innovation through Science and Technology.