bad science watchdog academia scandal plagiarism
(Image: Louis Reed/Unsplash)

A slew of Australian research papers have recently been deemed utterly unreliable.

In the science community, research found in hundreds of papers had accuracy and plagiarism issues. In politics, a 2015 paper co-authored by Liberal Senator James Paterson was found to have breached integrity standards. The young politician had copied and pasted content almost word-for-word from a document by the Australian Public Service Commission. 

With universities facing increasing funding cuts there is little job security for researchers, and institutions are relying on internal processes to call out dodgy practices. With no regulatory body to oversee and investigate standards, calls for a “bad-science watchdog” have intensified. 

Researchers struggle with security

Working in research is a tough gig. Researchers complain of lack of job security, low wages and limited career opportunities. One workforce survey found 83% of those working in medical research had considered leaving active research for another career option. Another found 55% of postdoctoral researchers considered moving overseas. This “brain drain” of qualified researchers, who have spent years studying in institutions partly funded by the government, represents a huge loss for the industry. 

According to a government report on innovation, Australia lags behind our international competitors in how invested we are in innovation, as well as in the level of our ambition:

One reason is that there are few research jobs available in the private sector. In fact, less than one-in-three Australian scientists work in the industry. That’s half the OECD average of 60 per cent; in the US four of every five researchers are in the business sector.

Most of Australia’s scientists work in universities or publicly-funded research facilities. Heavily reliant on grants and government funding, changes to the budget and in the government leave researchers particularly vulnerable. Up to 80% of university staff are employed casually in tenuous positions. 

Australian universities are struggling 

Not only is there limited investment in innovation, university funding has slowed to a trickle too. A two-year freeze in commonwealth grant funding meant $2.2 billion was slashed from university budgets. This year, it was announced $3.9 billion of research infrastructure funding, which has been frozen since 2013, would be repurposed into a new Emergency Response Fund, instead of used for new facilities in the higher education sector as planned.

Research funding is well below the OECD standard and it’s showing: institutions have started to slip down global rankings lists, while 10% of university units of evaluation are considered below world standard

To fund research, many universities have formed partnerships with multi-billion dollar conglomerates. The University of Sydney has turned to big pharma company Novo Nordisk; Melbourne University has paired with activewear company ASICS; and the Queensland University of Technology worked with petrochemical company Shell. These partnerships are often strategic and beneficial to students, but can present concerns over bias and ethics.

For example, University of Sydney was forced to issue a correction into a paper called The Australian Paradox, which incorrectly claimed sugar consumption had declined over the past 30 years and therefore couldn’t be responsible for the country’s diabetes and obesity crisis. One author had received funding from Coca-Cola. 

Students are feeling the pressure too. As universities adopt a commercialised, performance-based model, students are treated as customers there to get a degree as a receipt. Institutions are facing a huge cheating scandal, further eroding academic standards. 

Academia relies on self-regulation

Academia in Australia is fully self-regulated, with no independent monitoring body to check standards. This is rare — it’s uncommon for a country to not have some kind of external regulatory system in place. 

Research is supposed to be guided by the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, which outlines broad principles and responsibilities for researchers and institutions. Universities have to nominate research integrity advisers, and set up a research integrity office to oversee projects and manage complaints about the code. Naturally, this represents a pretty major conflict of interest, and complaints don’t always result in action. What university would want to damage its own reputation? 

Complaints can be escalated to the Australian Research Integrity Committee, which reviews how a university handled possible breaches, as well as their integrity policies, conflicts of interest, and disciplinary policies. The Australian Research Council also examines research quality in an annual report — but of the hundreds of thousands of research outputs produced across the country, only a handful of units of evaluation are assessed. 

It’s important to note that the majority of Australian scientific papers are considered world-standard. They’ve had conflicts of interests addressed, are peer-reviewed, can be replicated, use state-of-the-art equipment and are conducted by industry leaders. But when it goes wrong, bad science erodes trust in academia and undermines science. It adds fuel to the climate denialists debate and wreaks havoc on the industry’s reputation.

Australia has scores of regulatory bodies. It’s time to implement a bad science watchdog to protect our research standards, and raise investment into research and development to the level of our competitors.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey