Sunday, July 23, 2017

Clippings from Sweden

A good friend in Sweden was kind enough to send me some clippings from Swedish newspapers about the academic integrity issues that he has been collecting over the past year or so. Here goes my summaries of the articles:

  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 12 May 2016. Two professors of economics from the University of Uppsala and an assistant professor and a postdoc from the University of Stockholm, including one member of the Nobel Prize committee, have been accused of research misconduct. The accuser (named in the article) discovered his own work plagiarized in an article the accused published in 2011 that also somehow was used to prove an opposite result. The journal found the criticism correct, but decided not to take any action. The accused said that the plagiarized text was only in a preliminary version and was removed when they were made aware of it.
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 18 May 2016. A doctorate in the immunology of crayfish that had been awarded by the University of Uppsala has been rescinded after it was discovered that there was extensive manipulation of figures. This is the first time that this university has rescinded a doctorate. No sanctions were imposed on the advisor, as there are no rules for doing so. The thesis was a collection of five published papers, four of which had to be retracted. All attempts to contact the former doctoral student were fruitless. He was last seen working on a postdoc at a university in Texas, but was apparently fired there after just a few months for academic misconduct. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 13 August 2016.  Three professors wrote an opinion piece on academic ethics demanding a reform of the current process of dealing with misconduct. Their four major points include a better definition of academic misconduct that differentiates between misconduct and badly-done research, making clear that the institutions understand that they have a responsibility to deal with academic misconduct, that there needs to be a national instance with sufficient resources to conduct investigations as necessary, and better protection the privacy of the whistleblowers and the accused. [Currently, the names of all concerned are open knowledge, according to the Swedish Freedom of Information laws.]
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 9 December 2016. A record number of cases of academic misconduct (17) have been reported to the Swedish Central Ethical Review Board (CEPN) in 2016. There were only 10 in 2016, and only 1-3 cases a year since the board was set up in 2010. The head of the board is not sure what has caused the surge, but states that it could be a result of the press coverage of the Macchiarini* affair that is encouraging other whistleblowers to come forward. The head of the Vetenskapsradet (the Science Council of Sweden) believes that universities are now referring more cases to the review board, as the Macchiarini affair showed the problems that arise when an institution makes the wrong decision. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 23 February 2017. Commentary by the newspaper's medicine reporter Amina Manzoor about the suggestions proposed by Margareta Falhgren, the person appointed by the government to propose changes to how academic misconduct is to be handled in the aftermath of the Maccharini scandal. Her suggestions include a national body for investigating cases of suspected misconduct; forcing universities to register all cases with the body and permitting individuals to lodge complaints; the body taking a decision on whether misconduct happened or not, but leaving the sanctioning to the university; setting up a legal definition for misconduct to include FFP (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism); other forms of cheating are to be dealt with by the universities themselves. It is expected that the changes will take effect by 2019. 
  • Uppsala Nya Tidning, 7 May 2017 (other reports on 31 March 2017, 29 April 2017 and 12 May 2017) A long article describes a paper on research conducted at a research station on the island of Gotland about the effects of microplastic particles on fish larvae that was retracted from Science. There is also commentary thanking the whistleblowers in this case, some of whom are from the University of Uppsala.  They had attempted to obtain the raw data on the study, but the laptop with the supposedly only copy of the data was registered as stolen 10 days after the first request for the data was sent. There were various other excuses for why the data was not available. The whistleblowers had been at the research station at the time the experiments were said to have been conducted, but they did not see anything of the magnitude of the study taking place. The University of Uppsala had at first found no misconduct, but the CEPN found multiple issues, including missing ethical permission for animal experiments. The university now has to decide if and how they will sanction the researchers. 
  • Dagens Nyheter, 7 June 2017. The number of students who are sanctioned for cheating is skyrocketing. 2016 there were 733 sanctions recorded, or 2.5 per 1000 full-time equivalent students. 2015 there were only 630 sanctions, 2013 only 533. The jurist in charge at the Universitetskanslersämbetet stated that the increase is due to the universities being more conscious of the problems and getting better and uncovering cheating.
I find it very encouraging that public discussions about academic integrity are taking place in Sweden. Other countries would be well-advised to follow suit.

* The surgeon Paolo Macchiarini implanted artificial trachea in three patients in Sweden, two of the patients died and one was badly hurt and recently also died. Karolinska Institutet, the institution at which the research was done, eventually fired a number of people in 2016 after a TV documentary forced them to take action. 

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