Introducing and establishing a system of research integrity advisers

Some countries and institutions have advisers who advise on research integrity matters [and thus support realization of the research integrity principles in scientific practices]. Research Integrity Advisers provide low threshold support and individual advice on research integrity. These individuals are sometimes called by different names, for instance, research integrity ombudspersons (e.g. Germany). and their roles vary depending on country and context.

When to set up a system of research integrity advisers?

The need of such a support structure might emerge in the context of rapid expansion of research infrastructure in general, increasing internationalization of research environments, as a consequence of increased number of cases of misconduct, or in the aftermath of a larger case of misconduct that may have gained much media attention. Despite often set up as a reaction to some circumstance, needless to say, a system of advisers can also be set up as a proactive instrument to promote integrity. This is strongly encouraged.

What is the scope of the task?

The mandate of research integrity advisers can differ from one country and institution to another. In strengthening an integrity infrastructure, it is therefore important to define the scope of the task, and whether performed as a work duty or alongside work on voluntary basis. In some contexts, the adviser status is in many ways an honorary position denoting respect for and acknowledgement of the individual’s ethical competence and, perhaps, also high moral standards.

The research integrity advising may have for instance the following objectives:

  • Providing advise at the organisational level (e.g. higher education institution, research institution, or regional body);
  • Promoting responsible scientific conduct;
  • Offering research integrity advice to individuals;
  • Offering an opportunity for confidential discussion of integrity-related issues in the organization;
  • Supporting practices that aim at preventing scientific misconduct; and
  • Increasing familiarity of appropriate guidelines and procedure s in the organization providing low-threshold support for notifications of suspected scientific misconduct.[1]

To maintain the system of integrity advisers as a low threshold support structure, it is important that the client can trust that information exchanged with the adviser is confidential. The adviser may need to take notes on any discussions with their clients, but even so, it is important that the client knows how this information can be used. Essentially the client needs to be informed, whether notes are solely for the advisers own use, whether the client can have access to these upon request, or whether they can be handed over to investigating authorities in case an allegation leads to an investigation.

In addition to confidentiality, objectivity is important. The client may find that the adviser is an ally. As the adviser can be approached by different parties in one and the same case who represent the opposite views, the adviser should maintain an objective stance and cannot begin to promote the view point of one client. The adviser is not a lawyer or a spokesperson for his or her client. The adviser neither serves an investigation board by voicing views on a case nor participates in investigation processes of alleged misconduct. Separate bodies, either standing or ad hoc depending on the contextual model, handle allegations of misconduct.

Research integrity adviser duties

The duties of a research integrity adviser will depend on whether it is a paid work task or whether it is something that is done in addition to ordinary work. In addition, the national and institutional setting will determine what the expectations for the research integrity adviser are.

The following might be included among the duties:

  • Advising and supporting researchers and other employees in higher education institutions and research institutions;
  • Providing guidance on the processes related to handling allegations of scientific misconduct both at the beginning and during a process;
  • Directing clients to appropriate staff, bodies or committees;
  • Advising on how to write an allegation of misconduct;
  • Communicating with senior management of the organization in matters related to responsible scientific conduct and misconduct;
  • Updating own competence related to research ethics and integrity; and
  • Duties may primarily pertain to one’s own organization, but the task may also include national duties, e.g. related to dissemination and networking.[2]

There may also be a need for the advisers to be familiar with the work of ethics bodies as they are likely to also receive inquiries about ethics. Even though research ethics may not be in the scope of the task of advisors, they will then be able to recognize questions in the ethics domain and will be able to guide the client to the appropriate body. For instance, questions may pertain to ethics review, and in those cases it is important that the client can be guided to the appropriate ethics review board. Academic institutions have bodies for student affairs, and consequently student misconduct would generally be dealt with within such bodies. Furthermore, clients sometimes approach research integrity advisers with other work-related concerns, and then it is important that the adviser recognizes those that pertain to, for example, contractual and work environmental matters. These are not the domain of the advising that research integrity advisers do, unless there is a connection to breaches of good research practice.

Whom do the research integrity advisers advise?

The advisers may give advice within their own organization or regionally in the case that there are not institutional advisers but these serve a number of institutions in a specific region. The typical client is someone who works in a higher education institution or in a research institute. The client may be someone in a junior position, i.e. a doctoral student, or in senior position, i.e. professor or research director. The client may be someone who has observed activity in the research community that he or she suspects may involve scientific misconduct. The client may also be someone who is suspected of having violated codes of conduct and seek to know what their rights and possibilities for taking action are. Judgments as to whether the client is guilty or not guilty of misconduct should be avoided as this will likely influence the quality of advice given. Maintaining a neutral position is likely easier when keeping in mind the task of providing objective information on process and procedure, not being the advocate for any party.

Competence and training

Considering that advising is a task that requires substance and interpersonal competence, it is in the interest of any infrastructural agency or party to make sure that advisers are trained for their task. The advisers need to be familiar with the European and national/institutional guidelines for good scientific practice and procedures for the handling of allegations of misconduct. Advisors should be knowledgeable about how an allegation is made. The adviser would generally not make an allegation on behalf the client as the adviser is not a spokesperson for the client. The adviser should also be aware of any guidelines or practices related to whistleblowing protection and be ready to share this information with a client who is planning to blow the whistle (cf. also Gunsalus, 1998).

As part of setting up a system of integrity advisers it may be necessary to assure that the individuals taking up the task have sufficient knowledge themselves of what is good scientific practice and deviations from it and of procedures involving allegations of misconduct. Training can be offered for instance nationally or it may be institutionally organized.

The goals of basic research integrity adviser training may include for instance the following learning objectives:

  • understanding of the broader research integrity and ethics infrastructure of which the research integrity adviser system is part;
  • comprehending the scope of the task, and to recognize which type of issues or activities do not belong within the task;
  • understanding the aims of the research integrity adviser system and identifying how oneself contributes to those aims through adviser activities
  • understanding what is good scientific practice;
  • recognizing what is scientific misconduct;
  • understanding the processes involved in making an allegation, and understanding how the organization handles allegations;
  • familiarity with relevant guidelines for good scientific practice and for procedures for handling allegations of misconduct.

The extent of basic training according to a scheme such as the one above, is estimated to take up 2 working days. Of course, the extent of the training depends on how much time is reserved for discussion and practicing with case scenarios. This type of training activities are usually engaging and help to concretize the advisors task while providing the new advisers with advising strategies.

How should organisations support and promote the advisors’ work?

Research integrity advisors based at institutions of higher education and research institutions need support from their organization. The organization must be committed to upholding a system of research integrity advisers once it has been established. This means that the organization supports the adviser in disseminating information about the system. This may involve printing or publishing materials, inviting the adviser to speak at relevant meetings, keeping the adviser informed of integrity-related developments in the organization, and hearing the adviser in matters pertinent to research integrity. Organisations usually inform of their integrity support structures through intranet.

The organization may wish to define the mandate period, as well as a procedure when the adviser feels that he or she has a conflict of interest. In such cases, it helps if there are at least two advisers in the organization, or in the case of one adviser, there is an appointed individual who can step in if needed.


Finnish National Board on Research Integrity (2018). Research Integrity Advisers.

Gunsalus, C. K. (1998). How to blow the whistle and still have a career afterwards. Science and Engineering, 4, 51-64.


[1] Finnish National Board on Research Integrity. 2018. Activities of Research Integrity Advisers.

[2] Finnish National Board on Research Integrity. 2018. Activities of Research Integrity Advisers.