Misconduct investigation reports are uneven at best. Here’s how to make them better.

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Retraction Watch readers may have noticed that over the past year or so, we have been making an effort to obtain and publish reports about institutional investigations into misconduct. That’s led to posts such as one about a case at the University of Colorado, Denver, one about the case of Frank Sauer, formerly of the University of California, Riverside, and this story on a case out of the University of Florida.

We’ve obtained the dozen-plus reports we’ve published so far by a variety of means, from public records requests to court documents to old-fashioned leaks. Reading these reports confirms what others — including the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. National Science Foundation — have found. Namely, the reports — which are subject to an inherent conflict of interest, given that institutions are investigating their own — are uneven at best.

We’d like to do something about that.

Today, Adam Marcus and I, along with C.K. Gunsalus of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have published a Viewpoint in JAMA describing a checklist for such reports, along with a call for publishing more of them. The checklist includes items such as:

  • Did the investigating committee ask the right questions?
  • Did they interview the right people?
  • Do the findings support the conclusions?

The checklist and Viewpoint are the result of a deep dive into the issue by a group of experts we convened in December. As we note in the piece, that group — which gave generously of their time — included “a former university provost and president, other institutional leaders, federal officials, researchers, a journal editor, journalists, [National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine] panel participants, and attorneys representing respondents,whistleblowers, and institutions.”

In a comment on one our posts, Richard Smith, the former editor in chief of the BMJ (and a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization) calls publishing such investigation reports “a good idea.”

They should surely all be published: justice must not only be done it must be seen to be done…We need to achieve a world where universities can have no confidence that reports will remain buried.

Help us achieve that world. Have a report to share? Feel free to send it anonymously and confidentially to team@retractionwatch.com. (Or, since universities sometimes charge to fulfill public records requests, make a tax-deductible donation to our parent non-profit.) And please comment on how we can improve the checklist.

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