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Reporting unethical research

Reporting unethical research

The Higher Education Act decrees that activities driven by seats of learning are to be conducted such that a high level of quality is realized in the research. The responsibility for this rests with the leadership of these seats of learning. It is the department chairperson, and in a larger scope the college's or university's president, who has the responsibility to ensure that personnel follow laws, regulations and good practice, as well as to prevent deviation from these rules. Faculty committees have particular responsibility for research.

The Higher Education Ordinance states that the university is obliged to investigate if it learns of someone's misconduct. Guidelines for investigation has been presented by SUHF: "Riktlinjer för hantering vid universitet och högskolor av frågor om vetenskaplig ohederlighet" (Guidelines for universities and colleges in the handling of questions of scientific dishonesty).

It might ask for a statement from The Expert Group on Research Misconduct at CEPN (the Central ethical review board) - and should do it if the accused or the accuser ask for it (unless it is obviously unneccasary). No one other than an employer can report research fraud to them. A high demand for impartiality, documentation and openness should be placed on investigations.

There has been some discussion whether anonymous reports should be accepted. A report can always be sent anonymously of course, but if there are no other evidence and no-one comes forward as witness of the alleged misconduct, the report might be discarded as mischief and not investigated. An openly sent report about possible misconduct is not protected by any investigative secrecy - the reported (accused) always has a right to read the report against him or her.

Possible consequences - which can consist of, for example, a warning, salary deduction, termination notice, dismissal, or notification of prosecution - are determined by the president and/or the college or university's personnel committee. Rules for handling the matter are found in the Higher Education Act (SFS 1992:1434), Higher Education Ordinance (SFS 1993:100), Public Employment Act, 14-19 § (SFS 1994:260), Administrative Procedure Act (SFS 1986:223) and the law regarding legal examination of certain governmental decisions (SFS 2006:304). If the school does not take necessary action, it can be required to pay for ensuing damages.

When facing suspicious research, it is of course possible to alert the journal or publisher that have published the research findings. Guidance for how to cooperate around an investigation has been issued by COPE (Cooperation between research institutions and journals) as well as in a later article.

How long after the alleged misconduct can an allegation be forwarded? In Sweden, there are in practice no limits to when an allegation can be made. And there has been retractions made in the international literature decades after the misconduct. On the other hand, some federal authorities in the states, such as Office of Research Integrity (ORI), use a 6-year limitation.

Double employees

A problem can be, for example, that medical researchers are often employed by both college and municipality/county, which complicates matters. In the medical field, reports are normally filed with the the Health and Social Care Inspectorate. Duty to report and consequences are regulated here by documents such as the Law and Ordinance on patient safety (SFS 2010:659, SFS 2010:1369), the Medical Products Act, 26 § (SFS 2015:315), and HSLF-FS 2017:41, and The Health and Social Care Inspectorate regulation on the notification of events that have resulted or could have led to a serious health injury according to Lex Maria.

Privately employed researchers are naturally not subject to laws concerning public employees. If they work in health- and medical service, conduct pharmaceutical research or the like, they are however subject to the laws mentioned above. Furthermore, the general understanding is that proven fraud, for all researchers, means that any grants are revoked and publications retracted. Just as in academia, private companies do not wish to base their work on unreliable results. If the offense is serious enough, prosecution can even be an option.


As this website so clearly shows, science has highly placed ethical ideals. It thus often happens that researchers sound an alarm when an employer or co-worker conducts him/herself in an unethical way. The reporting researcher is then called a whistleblower. The basis for the right to sound an alarm is every citizen's yttrandefrihet (freedom of speech) as well as freedom for informants according to tryckfrihetsförordningens 1 kap § 1,3 (Freedom of the Press Act's Chapter 1, Par. 1.3): "It shall be for each and every person free /.../ to communicate information and intelligence on any subject whatsoever to make public in printed publications to authors, publishers, editors or companies for the professional communication of news or other messages to periodical publications".

Reporting suspected fraud in research is not entirely uncomplicated. Whistleblowers have occasionally experienced negative reactions to their reports. Particular support for these people can be necessary, a concept that is stressed in documents such as the Uppsala Codex and the Council of Europe recommendation. ORI has issued a Whistleblower's Bill of Rights and Guidelines on handling rataliation against whistleblowers.

In international research collaborations, differences within and between national policies might create challenges. To handle those, OECD has issued the guideline "Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Research Projects".

Last updated: 2020-04-12

Rules & guidelines

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