Conflict of interest, malicious accusations and international cooperation in the RCR process (TENK 2020:8)

Professor A’s research group in the field of social sciences included a foreign researcher B, who worked as a visiting researcher at university X. According to A’s report on an alleged RCR violation, A and B had, by consensus, written several joint scientific articles together until B had, without A’s knowledge, asked for A’s name to be removed from the list of authors of two scientific articles during the evaluation process of the draft version.

On the basis of the RCR investigation proper, the rector of X considered that, by publishing the articles in question in their own name, B was guilty of disregard for the responsible conduct of research, that is, denigrating the role of other researchers in publications.

In the request for a statement, B expressed their dissatisfaction with the way in which X had carried out the RCR process. According to B, members of the rectorate and the investigation committee had a conflict of interest due to their close friendships and cooperation relationships, and should therefore not have assessed the RCR notification made by A.

However, according to TENK, being colleagues or members of the same administrative body of a university does not result in a conflict of interest in the RCR process unless some other links are also involved, such as significant joint research projects. In addition, the researchers themselves should have reported their possible conflict of interest in relation to the persons or matter under review.

As B had been working at university X on a personal international research grant, B considered that their case should have been investigated in cooperation with the body similar to TENK in the country that had awarded the grant. According to TENK, however, this was not the case: in special cases, not only the national TENK guidelines, but also the code of conduct used in the international organisation in question may be applied to researchers working in international research consortia managed from outside Finland. According to TENK, B’s position as a visiting researcher was not comparable with the international research consortium as referred to in the RCR guidelines. In other words, X had been competent to act (alone) in the matter.

As a new issue in the request for a statement from TENK, B argued that, by submitting the RCR notification, A was guilty of falsely and maliciously accusing B of an RCR violation. According to TENK, this was not the case, as A unquestionably had clear grounds to request X to investigate the matter in an RCR process.

As A and B had differing views as to whether A’s contribution had been significant enough to merit authorship in the controversial publications, TENK addressed a critical remark to the university. In the future, the university must ensure that the principles of authorship are agreed between employees and other parties in advance, before the publication process is started. Research organisations are also obliged to do this by TENK’s recommendations Agreeing on authorship. Recommendation for research publications.