Publication, regulation and consent

We need to think about the inner workings of research as a practice, and the role that rules and guidelines play. According to Stefan Eriksson, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in Research Ethics, the real problems for science are the small deviations: the things that happen every day in the grey area between misconduct and ignorance about what is and what is not allowed.

Stefan ErikssonStefan Eriksson started his research ethics career as lecturer and director of the former Centre for Research Ethics (FEF) at Uppsala University. He joined our group to develop CODEX, a web resource with rules and guidelines for research. The website is now run by the Swedish Research Council, but still with Stefan Eriksson at the helm. He worked with research ethical questions in relation to biobank research for several years: A field that raises many questions in relation to consent, autonomy, data protection and research regulation.

There is some controversy surrounding informed consent to biobank and registry research. There are those who believe a broad consent to future research is sufficient. Others want to protect participants’ autonomy by employing a dynamic consent. In practice, this means that participants receive information and administrate their consent via a web interface. But Stefan Eriksson is critical of how the concept of autonomy is used in this debate. According to him, autonomy is not something that researchers should help participants accomplish. Instead, autonomy is their right to decide for themselves.  He recently developed these thoughts in an article published in Bioethics. Together with Linus Johnsson, he claims that the debate confuses three ways of respecting people: Autonomy, integrity and authority. When it comes to dynamic consent, Stefan Eriksson believes it can be seen as a way to authorize people by providing them with the tools they need to assume responsibility. We speak about autonomy, but in practice we authorize people in a way that threatens to infringe on their integrity.

”Autonomy is about allowing people to decide for themselves. Integrity is about allowing people to draw their own lines between what is public and what is kept private. Authority, on the other hand, is about letting people assume responsibility for themselves, their families and their relationships with society”, says Stefan Eriksson.

Stefan Eriksson is also interested in publication ethics and research regulation. A couple of years ago he wrote a textbook about publication ethics together with Gert Helgesson, and they continue to explore how research is published. They recently posted lists on where to publish and not to publish in bioethics on the Ethics Blog.

“At the moment, I am particularly interested in the consequences of moving towards Open Access publication. There are lots of journals and services that are there to make money off researchers who want to publish their work. The quality is often low and sometimes they even commit fraud by claiming peer-review where there is none. This is true for bioethics too”, says Stefan Eriksson.

A couple of years ago, teaching and lecturing started to take up more of his time. Stefan Eriksson has developed online research ethics training that is open for anyone who is interested in the topic. He is also frequently asked to give expert opinion. He is currently part of the scientific misconduct inquiry commissioned by the Swedish Government that plans to present results in November 2016. Stefan Eriksson is happy to be asked to serve and enjoys the task:

“There are many voices calling for criminalization and more severe punishments. It is important to look at those ideas in the light of the rule of law. We need better and clearer regulation. There will be more cases like the recent one with the surgeon Macchiarini at the Karolinska Institute, and they need to be handled in an acceptable manner”, says Stefan Eriksson.

However, according to Stefan Eriksson, the main problem for science lies in the small deviations from good research practice that happen every day. It could be adding a name to the list of authors,  or dividing results in smaller parts to publish more articles on the same data (what is also known as “salami-slicing”), or plagiarism. There is a grey area between misconduct and ignorance of what is allowed and what is not. The scientific community needs to defuse the stigma of raising questions about possible deviations from good research practice.

“We probably need to satisfy both the people who want to make misconduct criminal, and those who want to change culture by applying preventive measures. Doctoral students need awareness and courage to address these issues. That is why research ethics training is particularly important for young researchers”, says Stefan Eriksson.

The discussion on fraud, misconduct and deviations needs to be kept alive at our universities and research institutes. According to Stefan Eriksson, what is most important is to have the courage to ask questions openly. There are rules for authorship, but how are we using them? He believes media played an important role in the aftermath of the Macchiarini case. Hopefully, the coverage will lead to more people wanting to voice their suspicions, rather than keeping silent. But he believes the pressure needs to come from several directions:

“It is important to have both a bottom-up and a bottom-down approach. Our institutions need to send a clear message, but the researchers of tomorrow also need to start their careers with an understanding of these issues. That is the only workable strategy for ensuring a continued public trust in research”, says Stefan Eriksson.

About Stefan Eriksson

Stefan Eriksson is Associate Professor of Research Ethics. He is the editor of CODEX: The Swedish Research Council’s web resource with rules and guidelines for research. In 2016, he is part of the public inquiry about future organization for investigations into scientific misconduct. He is also an ethics expert in the Swedish initiative for increased Swedish participation in Swafs (2016-2017).

Stefan Eriksson has a background in Philosophy of Language. Between 1999 and 2000 he was the director of the Centre for Research Ethics collaboration between Uppsala University and the Swedish Agricultural University. The Centre later merged with the Centre for Bioethics and formed CRB, where he works today.

Stefan Eriksson is also a Senior Lecturer in Research Ethics. He is responsible for ethics courses for PhD students in Science and Technology at Uppsala University.

Josepine Fernow 14 April 2016