A framework for self-regulation in research integrity: the Finnish model, step by step

23.5.2018

The Finnish model is an internationally recognised and respected pioneering model of a European self-regulation framework on research integrity.

One of the oldest sets of guidelines on the national level for research integrity, those that define and investigate scientific misconduct, are found in Finland. The Finnish model is an internationally recognised and respected pioneering model of a European self-regulation framework on research integrity concerning the scientific community. This article introduces the background and the main features of the model as well as how it works in practice. The article also provides steps on how a similar framework can, where applicable, be launched, for example in another country or research culture. It is a review of the Finnish method for investigating scientific misconduct, written with the international reader in mind, and can be read in conjunction with Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland or the RCR guidelines, as drafted by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK, which have been published in Finnish, Swedish and English.

In 2018, there will be several different national approaches available in Europe for investigating violations of research integrity. There are also countries which still do not have any national framework. There are basically two courses of action in determining scientific misconduct, investigating allegations and imposing sanctions: a model based on legislation and a self-regulation model by the scientific community. When an RCR investigation leans on national legislation, serious research misconduct is, in this case, also a crime. It is not so within the self-regulation framework. Instead, the scientific community itself will rectify the situation, following academic practices, and will consequently carry out an investigation and impose sanctions, using mutually agreed rules.

In addition to the internal regulations within the scientific community, its starting point is the openness and transparency of science as well as the mutual trust between researchers and research organisations.

Finland employs a framework which is based on the national guidelines, first published in 1994, on the identification and investigation of responsible conduct of research (RCR) violations. In addition to the internal regulations within the scientific community, its starting point is the openness and transparency of science as well as the mutual trust between researchers and research organisations. The framework would work well in democracies akin to Finland.

TENK monitors the integrity of researchers and the quality of science in Finland

The activities of Finnish universities are based on self-administration and scientific freedom. The Ministry of Education and Culture directs the activities of higher education institutions and research institutes in Finland and also serves as their primary financer. The Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK was founded in 1991 by parliamentary decree. TENK is a body of specialists under the Ministry of Education and Culture, whose duty it is to promote research integrity and prevent scientific misconduct in Finland.

The Ministry appoints 10 members to the NAtional Board for a three-year term out of a group of specialists as suggested by the scientific community, based on their academic – not political – merits. They are respected members of the scientific community, both male and female. According to the decree, different academic disciplines and research methods as well as research integrity and jurisprudence must be represented amongst TENK’s members.

There is a small secretariat that manages TENK matters, and even though the National Board is financed by the Ministry, its members are not paid a salary. They attend meetings and become acquainted with misconduct cases alongside their own jobs.

Monitoring surveys have shown that in Finland, its citizens display a high level of trust in science and in researchers. TENK has the important social duty of ensuring that Finns continue to trust scientific findings. When it comes to scientific credibility and impartiality, it is vital for TENK to operate independently outside of research institutes, higher education institutions and the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Ministry does not interfere with the National Board or ethical courses of action.

In addition to monitoring scientific misconduct, TENK plays an important role in preventing it. This objective is supported by a local advisory system launched in Finland in 2017. In this system, organisations appoint research integrity support staff and TENK trains them. The support staff report to their organisation on RCR matters and provide their researchers with confidential, low-threshold counselling.

Applying the model and defining RCR violations

In Finland, the defining of responsible conduct of research and investigating cases are based on Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland or the RCR guidelines by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity. TENK drafted these guidelines in cooperation with the scientific community. Finland has over 20 years’ experience in the application and functionality of the guidelines, and they were last updated in 2012.

The effectiveness of these guidelines is based on a voluntary commitment to adhere to them by all universities, universities of applied sciences and other research organisations in the sphere of public funding as well as the most important financers.

The guidelines first describe the features of responsible conduct of research, including, for example, taking due consideration into account of previous work by other researchers, the agreement of authorship between the members of research groups, the principle of not having any conflict of interest or bias or the description of an employer’s informative responsibilities and other obligations. After this, the guidelines define RCR violations and the investigation process involving allegations of misconduct.

In Finland, there are two categories of violation regarding responsible conduct of research. The more serious category or misconduct includes the three subcategories fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, internationally known as FFP. One separately distinguished Finnish feature in misconduct is the misappropriation of another researcher’s idea or study plan.

The second, less severe category is the disregard for responsible conduct of research which comprises gross negligence involving the various stages of the research process. This includes, for example, self-plagiarism or the intentional omission of a researcher’s name from the list of authors in a joint article. Such condemnable actions have also been incorporated into the 2017 revised European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (All European Academies, ALLEA).

Moreover, the Finnish guidelines list other irresponsible practices, such as exaggerated information a researcher has given in his or her CV or misleading the general public through the media. In their most serious forms, these practices may be considered RCR violations.

The RCR guidelines apply to all academic disciplines in Finland. They apply not only to ordinary research and publishing activities, but also to all decision-making and evaluation concerning science carried out by researchers, such as referee activities and teaching work, including Master’s theses and Doctoral dissertations. The guidelines do not touch upon Bachelor’s and Master’s degree students.

The Finnish misconduct investigative or RCR process

When there is an allegation of scientific misconduct, an investigation will always be quite a strenuous ordeal, as a researcher’s career – his or her reputation and honour – will be at stake. This concerns both the one putting forth the allegation, who is usually the “victim” of the case, and the person suspected of the violation, even if the allegation is ultimately proven to be unfounded. This is why it is extremely important to resolve the case both thoroughly and impartially, and that all the parties in the investigation are heard. The Finnish RCR process ensures the legal protection of all the parties involved.

An investigation of an allegation under the RCR process is carried out at a research organisation where the suspected researcher works. Each serious allegation of misconduct will be provided with their own investigation committee, which will include experts in the academic discipline in question, qualified legal persons as well as at least two members outside the organisation carrying out the investigation. The process is led by the head of the research organisation in question – the rector at a university – whose duty it is to oversee the interests of the whole organisation, putting them before those of its individual departments, faculties or academic disciplines. The head can resolve either clear misconduct or less severe cases through the quicker practice of a preliminary inquiry. The fact that all allegations taken into consideration are transparently investigated through the monitored RCR process is, above all, in the interest of the organisation whose actions have been brought under suspicion. At the same time, the scientific credibility and reputation of the organisation shall be ensured. In the Finnish model, the investigating organisation is responsible for all of the costs resulting from the investigation.

If the investigation finds a severe RCR violation, the reputation of the researcher convicted will be tarnished. Furthermore, errors and unfairness found must be rectified as defined by the RCR guidelines, for example in the authorship in publications. The parties involved and the scientific community of the discipline in question as well as TENK and its financers must be provided with a report on the findings of an investigation. The research organisation involved will make decisions concerning other consequences. If the case includes, for example, suspected financial abuse or other legal infractions, they will be handled in separate judicial proceedings under Finnish law.

One crucial part of the RCR process is that parties dissatisfied with its procedure or outcome may submit a request for a statement on the case from an unaffiliated outside party, in other words TENK, within six months. Then, the final decision-making on the case is given to TENK. When issuing statements, TENK will only take a stance on matters concerning research integrity and not interfere in differences in scientific opinion or employment disputes often associated with the cases.

TENK must be informed on all new allegations and inquiries so that it can monitor the evolution of scientific misconduct in Finland.                                                   

The special features of Finnish self-regulation

How can a framework for self-regulation be created that is credible and that researchers can trust? What is unique about the Finnish model in comparison to other countries is that its universities and research institutes have voluntarily signed and committed to following the guidelines. Today, it would be completely unthinkable in Finland that a university would not make this commitment. Finnish research organisations also comply with the RCR guidelines and recommendations in TENK statements, usually to the letter.

In order to achieve successful self-regulation within the scientific community, there must be an organisation on the national level that oversees the functionality of the framework and to where complaints can be submitted. In Finland, TENK serves in this capacity as a research integrity committee. It does not investigate cases itself because it cannot process complaints about its own activities, which would be a conflict of interests. The Finnish framework is rather conservative cost-wise, taking into consideration that the reputation of research organisations would be on the line. A framework comparable to the Finnish one can be launched anywhere, in small steps and at a low cost.

A framework comparable to the Finnish one can be launched anywhere, in small steps and at a low cost.

For a framework for self-regulation to work, the following four factors, at the very least, are required:

1. national, regularly revised guidelines that define both scientific misconduct and the process used for investigating allegations of misconduct
2. universities and research organisations that have committed themselves to the guidelines (and will investigate suspected allegations in accordance with the guidelines)
3. researchers who are aware of the guidelines and adhere to them
4. a national committee that drafts the guidelines and handles complaints involving them

Organising self-regulation for the investigation of scientific misconduct, step by step

How would a framework for self-regulation according to the Finnish model be launched? How does it work, in practice, and how is it revised? The following steps show how to start implementing the framework:

  • A national decision should be made on launching a framework for self-regulation in research integrity and establishing a research integrity committee amongst the scientific community as well as the ministry that sees to matters in science and higher education or some other similar national body in the country that handles matters in science. The scientific community includes researchers, universities and other higher education institutions, science and research institutes and important national bodies that finance science.
  • The existence of a research integrity committee can be legislated by law or made by parliamentary decision in order to ensure the continuity of its activities. These activities may be based on, for example, a common body established and financed by a network of research organisations and universities, such as what is found in Austria.
  • The position of a research integrity committee secretary-general should be filled and an office established. The office should be physically located outside of organisations carrying out research; in the beginning, a one- to two-person secretariat should be enough for planning and implementing committee matters.
  • Research integrity committee procedural rules should be drafted and permanent financing for the committee should be confirmed.
  • A chair and several other members should be appointed on the basis of research and science policy for this scientific committee.
  • The secretary-general should make up a draft of national RCR guidelines together with the committee which would include, at the very least, the definition of misconduct and the procedure for carrying out an investigation; the committee should ask for feedback from the scientific community and the ministry or similar body that handles science matters; the committee would make the final approval of the guidelines.
  • The guidelines should be made public, both in the national language(s) of the country and, at least, in English.
  • Higher education institutions and research organisations should begin to adhere to the guidelines by signing a commitment form. A collective signing event could be organised.
  • This commitment would obligate research organisations to promote responsible conduct of research and research integrity at their facilities, offer staff members research integrity training and start the RCR process if an employee is suspected of scientific misconduct. All parties would be heard in this process.
  • The names of those organisations that would commit themselves to the activities of the research integrity committee should all be displayed on its website.
  • The national research integrity committee would oversee the path of the RCR processes and would serve as a body that handles appeals.
  • The RCR guidelines would be revised as needed.
  • Alongside the RCR guidelines, other national recommendations on special issues regarding research integrity could be drafted.

Sanna-Kaisa Spoof, Secretary General, The Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK


Further information:

The Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK: www.tenk.fi
Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland: http://www.tenk.fi/sites/tenk.fi/files/HTK_ohje_2012.pdf
European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (ALLEA): http://www.allea.org/publications/joint-publications/european-code-condu...