Researchers have flooded Sweden’s new national investigative agency for research crimes with cases, and there are no signs of release in the referrals.
Researchers brought 46 cases to the organization – called the National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (NPOF) and based in Uppsala – during its first year, according to a report describing its activities in 2020. This case was three times higher than officials expected.
In most countries, universities and research institutes handle allegations of misconduct on their own, which can lead to certain cases not being handled fairly or openly. Sweden followed Denmark – the first country in the world to set up such an agency, in 2017 – in an attempt to shake up investigations into fraud.
Experts had warned that the emerging agency could be overwhelmed, saying the large number of cases could be due to researchers feeling more comfortable reporting suspicions to an independent agency than to their own institutions, as they did under the previous system.
To date, investigations into 25 of the 46 cases have been completed, of which 11 were judged to be outside the authority’s area of responsibility, 10 researchers acquitted and 4 researchers found guilty of misconduct. Last month, the researcher at the center of the agency’s first guilty verdict won her appeal of the decision.
Sweden created the agency after confidence in its science was shaken by the case of star surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, formerly at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Macchiarini eventually committed a crime in connection with an experiment with an experimental tracheal transplant method, after being cleared by three internal investigations that were later considered deficient by an independent investigation conducted by the institute.
Following the scandal, a study led by Margaretha Fahlgren, a literary researcher at Uppsala University, suggested that Sweden set up a government body to deal with allegations of serious research fraud – defined as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism – in publicly funded institutions. In 2019, Parliament adopted a law to define misconduct in research and set up the NPOF. The agency started operating in January 2020.
In its first-year report, the NPOF said that 30 of the 46 cases it investigated concerned medicine, health and science – although it received referrals from all research areas except agricultural science and veterinary medicine. The 46 cases contained 56 incidents of alleged misconduct, with 10 related to manufacturing, 18 to counterfeiting, 18 to plagiarism and 10 other cases.
The organization announced its first conviction in September 2020, against biomedical researcher Karin Dahlman-Wright, former vice president of Karolinska Institutet, who took office after the Macchiarini scandal but resigned in 2019 when accusations against her appeared.
The NPOF found that Dahlman-Wright committed crimes in research, with four of seven research articles examined containing manipulated images. Dahlman-Wright denied the allegations and appealed her case to the Uppsala Administrative Court, which upheld her claim in August. Although the articles “contain images that do not correspond to the results that the images are said to show”, the court said in a statement, saying that Dahlman-Wright had not been grossly negligent – an essential part of Sweden’s definition of research crime.
NPOF is now preparing to appeal this decision. NPOF did not respond Naturerequest for comment on the matter. Dahlman-Wright declined to comment.
Dahlman-Wright’s appeal was one of two against NPOF’s guilty verdicts. A verdict is still awaited on the second appeal, in a case involving 13 materials and nanotechnology researchers at Linköping University, which NPOF established manufactured X-ray diffractograms in four research articles. The two other researchers who were found guilty of misconduct have not appealed and sanctions will be implemented by their institutions in accordance with the law, said a representative of the NPOF. Nature.
Fahlgren, who sits on NPOF’s board, says that many cases referred to the agency were the result of personal disputes, especially between doctoral students and their supervisors.
“This is an issue with the work environment – not misconduct – and we hope to be able to communicate with universities about how we should handle this,” says Fahlgren.
For 2021, NPOF expects to receive a similar number of referrals as in 2020, and it has taken on another employee to help handle the matter.
CK Gunsalus, a specialist in research integrity at the University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, says that the reference figures in Sweden are in line with what has been seen in the United States for many years. Awareness of responsible research standards and the idea that people are more comfortable worrying about an independent body rather than their own institutions may be behind the unexpectedly high number of referrals, she says.
“It’s over time for the entire research ecosystem to take care of healthy laboratory cultures at the forefront and provide meaningful, safe and reliable ways to address issues within institutions – as well as controls and balance for these systems,” adds Gunsalus.