Corruption watchdog warns of state’s $800m risk in research fraud

The state’s Crime and Corruption Commission wants universities to do more to protect taxpayer investment in research.

Jul 15, 2020, updated Jul 15, 2020
Sydney University wis on of the Australian universities caught up in the wages theft..  (Photo: AAP Image/Paul Miller)

Sydney University wis on of the Australian universities caught up in the wages theft.. (Photo: AAP Image/Paul Miller)

After auditing three Queensland universities, which it did not name, the CCC was generally supportive of the complaints management systems in place but made recommendations to improve fraud prevention.

It followed the prosecution of two former researchers from the University of Queensland over the publication of an article detailing research that had never been conducted. An internal investigation of research misconduct by UQ led to the criminal investigation by the CCC and, in 2016, the fraud and attempted fraud convictions.

Reporting on its audits this week, the CCC noted that Queensland universities benefitted from more than $800 million in taxpayer funding each year and were obliged to use it responsibly.

However, none of the three universities had any documented control for due diligence checks of researchers and there were cases where researchers had not been required to disclose any conflicts of interest in relation to grant applications.

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The universities also struggled with peer review, with the CCC finding “not all research projects were peer-reviewed to achieve the accurate and credibility of research findings and promote fraud detection”. That is despite publication in journals being valued for career progression and the ability to attract grants.

“Competition exists amongst researchers, particularly junior researchers, to regularly publish in order to increase the likelihood of continuing employment and promotion,” the CCC reported.

“Junior researchers may feel pushed to produce results that will gain the attention of their university’s leading researchers, which can generate opportunities to work on higher-profile projects. Accordingly, the issues of authorship ranking, number of articles published, impact factor (the frequency with which the article has been cited in a particular year) and ability to attract grant funds are closely interlinked.

“Unfortunately, the ‘publish or perish’ culture can be a double-edged sword. It can encourage performance in a competitive environment, but may also lead some researchers to make a deliberate choice to engage in research fraud. Fraudulent research activities not only jeopardise individual projects but impact on the lives of research participants and others awaiting the outcome of research trials.”

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