Western professor now heads research accountability panel

What’s in a name? Quite a bit, when it comes to academic research in Canada, says Western Psychology professor Marc Joanisse.

This summer, Joanisse was named chair of the Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research (PRCR), an interdisciplinary review and advisory body created in 2011 by the country’s three major granting agencies – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

As part of the panel’s mandate, the Tri-Council agencies established a policy that would publish unethical researchers. Thus far, no names have been released under the policy.

But that doesn’t mean there are no teeth to the policy.

“Only serious breaches of agency policy will result in the public disclosure of information related to the breach,” said Joanisse, adding every Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) file is unique. “There are varying degrees of breaches; only a small percentage of confirmed breaches are determined to be serious.”

All Tri-Council funding applications require applicants to sign a Consent to Disclosure of Personal Information, which allows the agencies, in the event of a serious breach of agency policy, to release personal information concerning the researcher, including their name, nature of the breach, institution where they work and recourse imposed.

The process of a violation is a thorough one. All the involved steps can take years to complete, which is why only now allegations related to applications made under the disclosure policy are being raised.

In 2014-15, the PRCR addressed 89 files. Of the 42 files they closed, 14 involved a confirmed breach of agency policy, including those related to plagiarism, falsification of data, breach of agency guidelines, mismanagement of funds and misrepresentation in an application or related document. The types of recourse imposed included letters of awareness or admonishment, funding and/or peer review ineligibility and reimbursement of agency funds.

Joanisse said it is premature to comment on whether the policy will serve as a deterrent to researchers. The policy only applies to grants held under applications made since Nov. 17, 2011.

“Allegations typically take some time to work their way through the system,” he said. “Often, an allegation will not be made until after research results are published, or a doctoral student completes his/her dissertation, for example. That process can take years, depending on the length of the grant, when the breach actually occurs, when it comes to light and when a complainant decides to bring an allegation.”

Joanisse hopes education efforts by, among others, the academic institutions, foster an environment that supports the responsible research conduct. He says any future rise in numbers isn’t simply a matter of poor ethics, but better understanding.

“Sometimes, an increase in allegations can be a sign that people are more aware of responsible research practices, and is therefore a healthy sign that researchers understand the responsibilities that they, and their colleagues, must meet,” he said.

Joanisse, a member of the panel for more than two years, feels his participation in the ‘service’ side of science is important and gives him an opportunity to see how the process works from the inside.

“I’ve previously served as a peer reviewer, grant selection committee member and even an associate editor at a journal. Joining the panel struck me as another chance to see inside a very important part of the scientific funding mechanism in Canada,” he said.