The policies and procedures that Memorial University of Newfoundland has used to protect research integrity and investigate allegations of misconduct at the institution are “sound and in keeping with national guidelines.”
That was the principal finding of Dr. Paul Pencharz who reviewed Memorial’s policies, processes and initiatives regarding research integrity in the wake of allegations earlier this year that raised questions about the research of former faculty member Dr. Ranjit Kumar Chandra.
Dr. Pencharz is a staff physician with the Division of Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he also serves as a senior scientist in the hospital’s Research Institute. He is also a professor of pediatrics and nutritional sciences with the University of Toronto.
Dr. Chandra was a faculty member of
Memorial University and clinical professor of medicine and researcher at the Janeway Childrens’ Hospital in St. John’s from 1974 until his resignation in 2002. Concerns about aspects of his research arose in the early 1990s, in the early 2000s, and again in 2006 with the broadcast of a three-part news series on CBC-TV The National (for complete CBC story see www.cbc.ca/national/news/chandra
Over a multi-year period Memorial University investigated and gave consideration to various allegations concerning Dr. Chandra and took a number of actions.
Dr. Pencharz examined Memorial University’s policies, processes and initiatives regarding research integrity for the period of the early 1990s to now. His review included a comparison with policies and processes for the same period in place at other research-active universities in Canada and an examination of the policies, processes and initiatives relevant to the research of Dr. Chandra.
“Policies and procedures in the past were based on the Medical Research Council (MRC) Guidelines on Research involving Human Subjects, which were national standards and were current at the time,” wrote Dr. Pencharz in his report. “The MUN [Memorial University of Newfoundland] policies were all sound and fully in keeping with those governing research involving human subjects at the time.”
“Present policies and procedures are based on the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct of Research involving Humans, which are current national standards governing research involving human subjects,” he wrote.
Dr. Pencharz cited additional protections for research integrity that Memorial and its faculty have had in place even before the initial allegations were made against Dr. Chandra. “What is impressive is the collective agreement between MUN and its faculty association (MUNFA) -- signed Dec. 17, 1992 -- which details how an `allegation of gross misconduct in academic research’ should be made; how such an allegation should be investigated; and how appropriate discipline should be applied if the allegation was proven to be true,” wrote Dr. Pencharz.
Furthermore, Dr. Pencharz found that the policies and procedures employed by Memorial were similar to those used at major universities across the country.
“All of the policies and procedures from the other six Canadian universities which were readily available and hence reviewed, were based on national standards, as were those from MUN,” he wrote. “ While those from the University of Toronto are the most detailed, in my opinion the policies and procedures of Memorial University of Newfoundland -- past and present -- were very similar to those of the six other Canadian universities examined.“
Dr. Pencharz says that despite the fact that Dr. Chandra has not been an employee of Memorial since 2002 that the university should not close the book on examining his latter research. “It is my view that serious consideration should be given to convening a committee of inquiry to address the second accusation of scientific misconduct…. If that investigation substantiates the accusation…, the final step is to convene a panel to review Dr. Chandra’s publications and make recommendations regarding whether or not there are grounds to question any of his other papers. In this way MUN would be seen to be proactive in correcting the scientific record.”
Dr. Pencharz has made recommendations on measures that should be taken by Memorial University to strengthen research integrity. He also makes recommendations for action at the national level, particularly joint actions by the major research funding organizations and research-active universities in Canada.
Notably he recommends, “That Memorial University of Newfoundland advocate for the establishment within Canada of a national research integrity agency” and “that Memorial University work closely with the newly established Canadian Research Integrity Committee… [and] advocate for an agency which covers all aspects of science, irrespective of funding source.”
He makes a number of other recommendations concerning actions that will enable better review of research, including:
• establishment of a data repository at Memorial into which all scientists would be required to store their data
• the creation of the role of research integrity officer
• the protection of due process in investigation of allegations of research fraud, including appeal of findings
• the protection of so-called “whistle-blowers” who come forward to identify potential problems or concerns.
“We remain committed to integrity in all the research we undertake at Memorial University,” said Dr. Chris Loomis, Memorial’s vice-president (research). “In the case of Dr Chandra and the various allegations against him, it is now clear that the steps taken by Memorial to assess and address them were based on policies and procedures that were sound and consistent with national standards.”
“Moving forward, this report provides us with a number of recommendations and guidelines to ensure that we have appropriate mechanisms in place to deal with any issues that arise concerning the integrity of the research being undertaken at Memorial,” said Dr. Loomis.
“Dr. Pencharz’s report will also help the research community nationally as new mechanisms are considered to help address concerns about research integrity that may arise elsewhere in the country,” he said.
In terms of re-opening investigations and convening a committee of inquiry into the early-2000 allegations, Dr. Loomis said the university would consider this. “We want to ensure that both the public record and the scientific record are corrected,” he said. “But I am concerned that we will come up against the same obstacles that we did when we first attempted to investigate those and other allegations and that is that Dr. Chandra’s raw research data are not available for examination.” He also said that a listing of all publications by Dr. Chandra has been placed on Memorial’s website, with a note that the research data on which some of the articles are based cannot be located or verified.
At the national level, Health Canada has organized a workshop on research ethics which will convene in Ottawa January 22-23. “The time is right to consider national steps that can strengthen our collective efforts to ensure the integrity of research in Canada,” said Dr. Loomis, who will be attending the workshop representing Memorial.
Dr. Axel Meisen, Memorial University’s president, has indicated that a briefing for the university community on the Pencharz report is planned for the end of January. “The report’s findings, recommendations and implications and the actions that need to flow from it will be the focus of the briefing and subsequent discussion,” said Dr. Meisen. The date and location of the forum will be announced shortly.