Introducing and establishing an infrastructure for handling misconduct

The strongest measure of academic integrity in a given context is not the prevalence or lack of misconduct, but the system’s capacity to handle allegations. A procedure should guarantee an objective and fair handling of the allegation. While a code of conduct is a good starting point for an integrity infrastructure, it is not enough. The system must be able to handle allegations of misconduct and proven misconduct. Individuals should be held accountable for their actions. If they are not, this could send a counter message regarding the relevance of codes (Kezar & Sam, 2011). In addition, responsibility lies within institutions, which can either support individuals in living up to the highest ethical and integrity standards, or fail to do so.

What is misconduct?

The ALLEA European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2017) provides a definition of practices that are considered misconduct. These include fraud, falsification and plagiarism (FFP). In addition, the ALLEA Code of Conduct outlines a number of other unacceptable practices, including manipulation of authorship, republishing substantial parts of one’s own research without clearly mentioning where the parts have been published before, and withholding research results, to mention a few.

National and institutional codes of conduct may have narrower or broader definitions of misconduct. According to some codes of conduct, misconduct involves strictly speaking FFP, whereas some codes may take a broader view including other unacceptable or irresponsible practices. The definition of misconduct bears consequences for the kind of allegations that can be handled in a procedure.  (cf also Spoof, 2018).

A national or institutional procedure?

There are advantages with a nationally uniform procedure for handling allegations. Allegations are treated according to the same procedure, which will help ensure that parties involved are treated in the same way, and it reduces some of the potential of similar offenses being treated differently. A national procedure, however, requires the existence of a body that can take on the task of devising the procedure and seeking sufficient consensus among research institutions in order for the procedure to have effect (cf. also Spoof, 2018).

If there is not at a national level an institution or body that can take on the task of coordinating the set-up of common procedures, institutions are likely to have their own. However, institutional cooperation may be beneficial in terms of sharing good practices and finding alignment between procedures and implementation.

A national or institutional agency for integrity?

In many European countries (cf. information on the ENRIO website) there is a national integrity agency/board, but the role of these may also vary. In some countries, the national integrity board is a body with investigative authority, whereas in some countries it will not investigate allegations, but may issue statements on whether procedures have been carried out properly, and whether outcomes are justified from an integrity point of view. It may thus serve the purpose of an appeals institution to which a party dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigation may appeal to. In any case, it is important to consider which body or bodies are the most appropriate for handling appeals, and recognize that there are different models applied in Europe.

If there is a national agency, it could also be the role of the agency to propose a uniform procedure and to serve as a hub for exchange of practices.

Who does an investigation in institutions?

There are different practices in terms of whether a board is permanent or formed ad hoc upon demand. Furthermore, a procedure may be permanently administered while different experts can be called upon depending on the nature of the allegation and field. Field-specific expertise is often a necessity both in terms of field-specific knowledge but also field-specific practices, which may vary greatly, for instance with regard to assignment of authorship. This, however, is not to say that irresponsible practice should be tolerated in one field, but not in another.

In many research institutions a rector, vice-rector, chancellor or other senior university administrator oversees an investigation. The investigation itself can be carried through by an individual or a committees appointed by the institution’s leadership. There may be an administrative office supporting in the investigation. Experts in the field in which an alleged case has appeared can be invited to provide field-specific insights.

In some countries/ institutions there may be a pre-investigation before an investigation proper. The purpose of a pre-investigation is to determine, whether there is sufficient reason to pursue an investigation proper. Such a procedure may help to save resources in cases that turn out to not give reason for a full investigation. An individual appointed by an institution’s leadership may carry out the pre-investigation. If, after the pre-investigation, there are grounds to assume that misconduct has been conducted, the institution’s leadership may appoint a committee to carry out an investigation proper.

What defines a good procedure?

A procedure that ensures the fairness and impartiality of the process is key in the handling of allegations of misconduct. Fairness is ensured by allowing all parties involved the opportunity to voice their viewpoint and bring forth relevant evidence. As allegations can be emotionally burdensome for all involved, the aim should be to keep the process within a reasonable timeframe. Sometimes investigation processes may go on for years for various reasons, and therefore it may be worthwhile to have specified timeframes for the different phases of the investigation procedure – if not as definitive deadlines, at least as recommendations. The timeliness of the investigation can be seen as one quality indicator of the process. Last, the investigation relies on the objectivity and competence of the investigators, and therefore it is important that individuals called upon to conduct the investigations are experienced academics with no conflict of interest in the particular case.

To sum: Four core elements define a good procedure, namely

  • fairness
  • impartiality
  • timeliness
  • objectivity and competence of investigators

How are allegations made?

In setting up procedures for handling allegations of misconduct, it may be useful to consider whether or not allegations can be made anonymously. If anonymous allegations can be made, how is the anonymity handled, i.e. is the identity of the whistleblower completely anonymous, or anonymous to the extent that an authority may have the identification of the whistleblower, but this information is not shared or utilized in the process in any way. Furthermore, it needs to be considered how whistleblowers are protected, especially in cases where anonymous allegations cannot be made or the identities of whistleblowers cannot for some reason be fully protected.

A template asking for the vital details can be highly helpful for both the individual filing the claim as the investigator/ board handling the allegation. The template may ask the person filing the claim to provide information about parties involved, institutions, timeframe and which form of misconduct is suspected. Additionally, it may ask for specific key documents or pieces of evidence, but often it is worthwhile to limit the information to specific questions at this point. Investigators may wish to ask for additional information as needed. Individuals filing a claim may have difficulties knowing and foreseeing which information and in what form the investigation committee will require. They may include excessive information just to be sure that they provide enough detail. Investigators may find themselves receiving large amounts of detail and documentation, which it has difficulty identifying as pertinent for the case in question. Therefore, a template can be helpful for both parties in a) selecting the information that is relevant, and b) structuring the information along lines that supports parties to gain and maintain a holistic view.

What is a sufficient sanction?

If an allegation leads to an investigation, and the outcome of the investigation is that misconduct has taken place, it is generally up to the institution in which the misconduct has taken place to determine appropriate sanctioning methods. This is usually regarded as belonging to the autonomy of higher education institutions. It is rare in a European context that misconduct results in termination of a work contract, however, this may happen in severe cases of misconduct. The level of publicity of outcomes of investigations vary from country to another. There are contexts in which laws on public information require that anyone interested in finding out about an investigation may have access to that information. When the outcome statements of investigations are public, measures may be needed for protecting different parties. If the accused researcher is found guilty of misconduct, the consequences may be detrimental especially if the case gains public attention. The effects can be demanding any way even if just accused and not found guilty. A ruined reputation is sometimes considered a sufficient consequence without additional sanctions imposed. Sometimes there may be an embargo on application for funding. If the misconduct is related to published articles, retractions are likely. Institutions may require the researcher at fault to take a course in research ethics. This type of sanctions are targeted at individuals. Equally important is for institutions to scrutinize the research environments and consider whether measures should be taken to help raise ethical and integrity standards in those environments.

What are appropriate sanctions in different cases of misconduct is often the topic of discussion when investigators of different institutions meet. While it may be difficult and problematic to set specific guidelines for this, it is certainly worthwhile to exchange experiences of different cases and their impacts on not only the researchers found guilty of misconduct, but also others who collaborated or worked under the supervision of those researchers, and the field in general.


ALLEA (2017). European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. Revised edition.

Godecharle, S., Nemery, B., & Dierickx, K. (2013). Guidance on research integrity: No union in Europe. Lancet381,1097–1098 + Appendix 6 pages.

Kezar, A. J., & Sam, C. (2011). Enacting Transcendental Leadership. Creating and supporting a more ethical campus. In T. Bertram Gallant (Ed.). Creating the Ethical Academy. A systems approach to understanding misconduct and empowering change in higher education (pp. 153-167). New York. Routledge.

Spoof, S. K. (2018). A framework for self-regulation in research integrity: the Finnish model, step by step. Responsible Research