Ethics work heavily criticised by Auditor General

Higher education establishments are not sufficiently equipped to safeguard research ethics, according to the Office of the Auditor General of Norway. The National Research Ethics Committees find this concerning.

Auditor General Per Kristian Foss
Auditor General Per Kristian Foss is not satisfied with the way universities and colleges manage research ethics responsibility. Photo: The National Audit Office / Ilja Hendel
The cover of the research ethics magazine no 3 2021
2021-3 From this issue we give you an article on scientists who decided authorship-order by croquet.

First published in Norwegian on December 13 2021.

‘It’s important for research to maintain a high standard, and the ethical aspect is at least as important as the academic aspect’, stresses Per Kristian Foss, Auditor General of Norway. 
He notes that if the ethics are not up to scratch, it can have a major impact on the credibility of the research and the institutions’ reputation. 
So what is the situation at public research institutions? According to the Office of the Auditor General of Norway’s report on research ethics in the higher education sector published in November, there is considerable room for improvement.

Admittedly, the report has not looked at actual research ethics practices, examining instead the systems that are supposed to facilitate them. The background for the audit is the legislation on the organisation of research ethics work (Loven om organisering av forskningsetisk arbeid – in Norwegian only) introduced in 2017, which imposed a clearer responsibility on the institutions for their research ethics work (see fact box).  
The 10 universities and 11 university colleges in the public sector were scrutinised in the audit. Four years after the new Act came into force, the conclusion is crystal clear: they are not doing enough to ensure that research is conducted in accordance with the research ethics legislation and recognised research ethics norms and rules. 
According to the report, the institutions do not have systems that adequately facilitate training for staff involved in research. Provisions are also needed to ensure that possible breaches of recognised research ethics norms are identified, addressed and reported.  


Research ethics legislation

  • The legislation on the organisation of research ethics work (Lov om organisering av forskningsetisk arbeid – in Norwegian only) entered into force in 2017. Establishments were given a clearer and more specific responsibility for addressing research ethics issues and developing expertise in research ethics. 
  • Researchers and research institutions must ensure that all research is conducted in accordance with recognised research ethics norms. The individual researcher has an independent responsibility in all stages of the research process. 
  • The Act applies to research in both the public and private sector. 

Source: Riksrevisjonens rapport om forsknings­etikk i universitets- og høyskolesektoren (Report by the Office of the Auditor General of Norway on research ethics in higher education – in Norwegian only) 

The dream scenario for the research ethics legislation is a culture that promotes good-quality research and robust research ethics, where research ethics issues and cases are assessed and dealt with, and not swept under the carpet. 
‘It is frightening to think that three institutions have no guidelines for dealing with possible breaches, and as many as 14 have what we consider inadequate guidelines. There should be a system in place – individual assessments on a case-by-case basis don’t quite cut it’, says Foss. 
The instruments used to identify possible breaches, such as quality assurance systems or plagiarism checker tools, are also unclear and variable, according to the report.  
However, there are some bright spots: 20 of the 21 institutions have appointed a research integrity committee, some of which are a joint endeavour with other institutions. The last remaining institution is currently in the process of setting up a committee. 

Opting out of training 

The research ethics legislation states that the institutions are responsible for the necessary training of students and staff. Everyone conducting or participating in research must also be familiar with recognised research ethics norms. 
But what does ‘necessary training’ actually mean? The institutions themselves must determine and document this, but only 2 of the 21 have actually done so, according to the report. 
Furthermore, only 13 of the 21 institutions offer training to everyone, and this is voluntary for many of the people involved. Mostly, it is bachelor students, master students and doctoral candidates who are required to undergo such training. 
In the RINO (Research Integrity in Norway) survey from 2018, 6 out of 10 respondents stated that they had either received no training in research ethics or only one day or less. 
‘The systems must ensure that all researchers who are active have completed a training programme in research ethics and can document this. Even the best researchers need to follow the rules that apply to research ethics’, emphasises Foss.  

‘A lot of work is still needed’ 

Helene Ingierd, Director of the National Research Ethics Committees (FEK), describes the report from the Office of the Auditor General of Norway as interesting and informative. She believes it addresses important issues and presents findings that are important for everyone who works with or is responsible for research ethics. 
‘The findings are not very surprising, and the report reflects much of what we at FEK have seen previously, including the challenges relating to training that were identified in the RINO survey. It shows that a lot of work is still needed in terms of research ethics at the institutions.’ 
Ingierd notes that the RINO survey was conducted a few years ago, and that it would be reasonable to expect more systems to be in place by now. 
‘As such, some of these findings are serious and worrying. I would’ve liked to have seen more progress in the institutions’, she says. 
‘What action should be taken in light of the findings?’ 
‘For the institutions, it is an unmistakable call to put more effort into implementing the clear statutory requirements. I am expecting them to increase their focus on putting systems in place for training and dealing with issues’, says Ingierd. 
The Director of FEK also believes it is important that research ethics are not limited to statutory provisions, even though these have been a natural starting point for the Office of the Auditor General. 
‘We believe that it will also be important to investigate and shed light on other aspects of research ethics work in the future. Based on our experiences, there is no reason to believe that there are very many cases of misconduct. However, numerous challenges exist in research ethics in the broader sense, and the question remains of how to address these. I hope that the institutions’ efforts to meet the statutory requirements will not overshadow this.’ 

Criticism of the Ministry 

At the press launch of the report, the Auditor General also levelled criticism at the Ministry of Education and Research.

About the audit 

  • The audit encompasses all 21 of the public higher education establishments that are directly under the Ministry of Education and Research. 
  • The audit includes an investigation into whether the establishments have facilitated and safeguarded the conducting of research in accordance with legislation and recognised research ethics norms and rules. 
  • The research ethics legislation and the associated bill and recommendation, as well as the research ethics regulations are key documents. 
  • Interviews were conducted with the National Research Ethics Committees and the National Commission for the Investigation of Research Misconduct. 
  • The Office of the Auditor General sent letters containing a number of questions to the research institutions and asked them to provide relevant documentation.  

Source: Riksrevisjonens rapport om forsknings­etikk i universitets- og høyskolesektoren (Report by the Office of the Auditor General of Norway on research ethics in higher education – in Norwegian only) 

‘The report sets out the ways in which the legislation has not been properly complied with, and should be viewed as an indicator of the need for control. The Ministry’s role is not only to act as a legislator, but also to follow up and control’, explains Foss to the Research Ethics Magazine. 
Nor does Helene Ingierd deny that FEK must take its share of the responsibility for the current situation. FEK’s mandate involves being the primary research ethics resource for maintaining high-quality, responsible research in Norway.  
‘Assisting institutions with their research ethics work is an important part of FEK’s remit. For instance, we create material for use in training and guidance. We are now working on a project that entails updating and further developing our training resources. Another project involves drawing up a guide to aid the processing of cases related to misconduct and research ethics’, explains Ingierd. 
She notes that both of these projects are directly aimed at the research institutions and their work. 
‘In general, I feel that we have a close, positive dialogue with them, and it is important to meet their needs so that they can fulfil their responsibilities.’    

Time is no excuse 

Auditor General Foss believes that the institutions’ explanations for lack of compliance will vary considerably. 
‘Some will probably say that the legislation is new, others that they consider ethics to be in a researcher’s DNA. The latter may well be true, but it does not automatically guarantee that they know the rules. 
‘Is insufficient time to adapt to the new legislation a valid excuse?’ 
‘No, I don’t consider it be, four years is a long time. No one who is caught doing 120 km/h in a speed control can explain it away by saying that the 110 limit is new. Likewise, we expect higher education institutions to stay up-to-date and adhere to the regulations’, confirms Foss. 
He emphasises that the Office of the Auditor General will follow up research ethics in its ongoing work. 


The Ministry will follow up  

The Ministry of Education and Research will emphasise the higher education institutions’ responsibility for research ethics in the funding letters for 2022, according to State Secretary Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel.  

Løkensgard Hoel (pictured) considers it positive that the Office of the Auditor General of Norway is addressing the subject of research ethics. 
He notes in an email to the Research Ethics Magazine that ‘the work in research ethics must be an integral part of the institutions’ efforts to maintain a high standard of research’.  
He points out that the Office of the Auditor General has placed an emphasis on the institutions’ guidelines, quality assurance systems and corresponding documents, but fails to address the institutions’ broader efforts in the standard of research. 
‘The Office of the Auditor General of Norway’s findings in relation to shortcomings in the institutions’ systems do not therefore provide a basis for concluding whether the quality of the research is affected. But it does provide a basis for us to emphasise in the funding letters for 2022 the responsibility of public higher education institutions for the areas referred to by the Office of the Auditor General.’  

Trust on the agenda 

The State Secretary explains that the Ministry will follow up any non-compliance in this area in the management dialogue with the individual institution. 
‘In addition, the Ministry will continue to work on issues of trust in evidence-based knowledge. This includes research ethics issues in the revision of the long-term plan for research and higher education which is currently underway’, notes the State Secretary. 
Løkensgard Hoel adds that FEK is also working on a guide for research ethics cases, including cases of misconduct. 


Findings from the report: 

  • 12 out of 21 institutions offer training for all employees who work with research.
  • Only two institutions have determined and documented what training is necessary for all employees who work with research.
  • 20 institutions have established a research integrity committee. One institution does not have a committee that meets the requirements.
  • 11 institutions state that they use quality assurance systems or tools (for example, plagiarism programs) suitable for detecting possible violations.
  • 13 of the 21 institutions have dealt with one or more cases of possible breaches of recognized research ethics norms in the period 2018-2020.
  • A total of 72 cases were dealt with in these 13 institutions. 23 of the cases have been reported to the National Commission for the Investigation of Research Misconduct and in 9 of these cases, serious violations have been uncovered.


Response from the institutions 

1. What is your response to the findings of the report? 
2. What steps will your institution take to improve compliance with the research ethics legislation?  

Dag Rune Olsen, rector, UiT 1. I’m not particularly surprised. The sector has had a tradition of leaving research ethics up to the individual researcher, and I think we’re resisting the need to get to grips with what is now the statutory responsibility of the institution and management. 2. We need to review our doctoral programmes and ensure that everyone has a sufficient overview of the research ethics arrangements, tailored to the various subject areas and disciplines. We also need to ensure to a greater extent that established researchers are regularly updated on research ethics. For the management’s part, we must improve our efforts to devise research ethics compliance systems. 
Tor Grande, prorector for research, NTNU 1. The Office of the Auditor General focuses on several important aspects of research ethics in the higher education sector. As a sector and institution, we must take these seriously. 2. Compliance could be better in several areas, but perhaps the most important of these is training. There has been a gratifying development in this area among doctoral candidates and supervisors, but we must ensure adequate and documented training for all employees in academia. A more systematic approach to competence, including research ethics, is high on the agenda at NTNU.  
Steinar Kristoffersen, rector, Molde University College 1. The report is interesting and thought-provoking. It shows that we should work more on training for research students and employees. The report can also be interpreted as suggesting that the institutions should work more closely together on common guidelines and systems for skills enhancement and compliance. 2. I will present my response at a management meeting first, in order to ensure that our future efforts in research ethics have support throughout the organisation. I believe that better systems for compliance through cooperation are best followed up through Universities Norway, but training is an area we can focus on more.  
Per M. Norheim-Martinsen, vice rector for research and development, OsloMet 1. The findings in the Office of the Auditor General’s report are disheartening, but unfortunately not unexpected. The report is a clear reminder of our statutory duties, but also a welcome tool for identifying areas that can – and must – be improved quickly.  2. OsloMet is already planning a three-year focus on courses and skills enhancement in research ethics for our academic staff. Our research ethics committee is also devising procedures for reporting misconduct at the institution. This is a priority area for management. 
Gunnar Yttri, rector, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences 1. This is a thorough and important report. It shows which areas we should prioritise in the short and long term, and who we might be able to work with. 2. We have a large focus on this. Our technical and organisational solutions and systems work well. These are intended to support us in the efforts to prevent possible breaches of recognised research ethics norms and ensure that they are effectively identified, addressed and reported.  
We have also boosted our efforts by recruiting expertise in the field and placing more focus on training senior staff and supervisors.  

Translated from Norwegian by Carole Hognestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.