The work of the original committee 199298

The committee did not have the power to make decisions that were legally binding. It could only investigate cases and express its opinion. So the research community was not given the power of self-governance, as is the case, for instance, for lawyers and certified accountants. Nevertheless, the conclusions of the committee were taken extremely seriously by the persons and institutions involved, given that its members were recognised opinion leaders in the research community.

Formally the committee was not part of the public administration, and hence not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. As it was considered important that the details of the case would not appear in the press while the investigation was ongoing, the committee decided not to give public access to documents before the parties were told of the decision.

From the very start, the committee considered that it was important to conduct its business in such a way that the parties would not need to be represented by lawyers. If a party should wish to be represented by a professional organisation or a private lawyer, he or she should be free to do so, but it was considered to be unfortunate if it became regular practice to involve lawyers, so as to avoid any replication of the legalistic development seen in the USA.

The Committee dealt with all aspects of scientific dishonesty in medical science. Dishonesty includes all deliberate fraudulent work at any time during the application-research-publication process, as well as such extreme cases of negligence that the question of professional credibility becomes an issue. This corresponds to the legal concepts of intent and gross negligence.

Self-evidently such a definition was rather strict. In the years 1992-98, when the committee received 45 complaints and investigated 25 cases, dishonesty was found in only four cases. Nevertheless, the committee did not restrict itself to concluding whether dishonesty was found or not. It used another norm in that, when it thought that the behaviour had violated good scientific practice, it said so in its conclusion of the case. For example, the committee has stated that a researcher acted against good scientific practice when he publicly presented research results which at the time had not yet been published in the usual scientific way. In its view, prior to presentation to the public, a research paper should undergo peer review and discussion in the research community. An aggravating circumstance was when a researcher publicly discussed not his own but another researcher's unpublished work.

The question has been raised whether fundamental legal principles are jeopardised when, at one and the same time, the committee decides which acts should be regarded as contrary to good scientific practice and then uses its own defined norms as the basis for its decisions. A fundamental tenet has always been that legal rules cannot be used before they have been published so that the public can become aware of their existence. In response to this criticism, the committee emphasised that it did not itself decide the norms for good scientific practice. It has always referred to what the opinion leaders in the scientific community have generally regarded as unacceptable behaviour - what, to speak legally, could be described as customary law. When the decisive point is whether the norms were recognised beforehand by opinion leaders, it is evident how vital it is that the members of the committee are recognised as leading figures in the profession. Fortunately the members have had this status, and the activity of the committee and its decisions have generally been acclaimed by the research community and society at large.

Another question has been why the committee has gone beyond what its statutes defined as scientific dishonesty. For what reason was the norm regarding violating good scientific practice introduced? The reason was that typically any breach of good scientific practice will create tensions among researchers, and bad personal relationships in small research units can be extremely damaging for the institution's performance. Thus to maintain a standard of good scientific practice will not only protect the interest of individual researchers against unfair behaviour from competing fellow researchers, but also protect the institutions against behaviour that could give rise to an unproductive, hostile interrelationship among the employees. Once again it should be emphasised that the committee has not looked upon itself and its practice as normative, but as a body which crystallises and formulates norms already recognised by opinion leaders in the field.

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