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University Policy 56

Ethics in Research

Initially approved: November 1, 1989
Revised January 1, 1994
Revised June 10, 1996
Revised August 25, 2008

Policy Topic:  Research and Sponsored Activities
Administering Office:  Academic Affairs

I. Policy Statement

Western Carolina University is committed to maintaining the highest standards of scholarly integrity on the part of all members of the University community. It is the policy of the University that all scholarly activities be conducted in an ethical and legal manner.

This policy outlines the process for evaluating and investigating allegations of research misconduct. All members of the University community have a personal responsibility to implement this policy with respect to any scholarly work in which they are engaged or about which they are knowledgeable. Failure to comply with this policy shall be handled according to procedures outlined below.

II. Definitions

The term “Chief Research Officer” is defined as the senior executive responsible for the University’s research enterprise.

The term “complainant” is defined as the individual reporting an allegation of research misconduct in good faith. 

The term “Deciding Official” is defined as the Provost and is the official responsible for reviewing the investigative committee report and making a final determination on the findings.

The term "ethics in research" is defined as adherence to established ethical principles, professional codes of conduct, and professional norms related to the performance of all research and scholarly activities. See Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. (2009). On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research. 3rd Edition. National Academies Press.

The term "inquiry" is defined as a preliminary information-gathering and fact-finding action to determine whether an allegation of misconduct warrants investigation.

The term "investigation" is defined as a formal gathering, examination, and evaluation of all relevant facts to determine whether an event of research misconduct has occurred, to identify the member(s) of the University community responsible, to determine the extent of adverse effects stemming from an event of misconduct, and to recommend corrective or punitive action to the Deciding Official. 

The term "member of the University community" is defined as a student, faculty member, administrator, staff member, affiliate, or employee of Western Carolina University. 

The term “non-compliance“ is defined as any material failure to comply with federal, state, or local law or University policies, procedures, or other requirements affecting specific aspects of the conduct of research, such as, but not limited to, the protection of human subjects and the welfare of laboratory animals.

The term “Office of Research Integrity (ORI)” is defined as a federal agency, organized within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that oversees and directs U.S. Public Health Service research integrity activities.

The term “research” is defined as a systematic investigation, including research development, testing, and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

The term “Research Integrity Officer (RIO)” is defined as an individual with administrative responsibility for implementation of this policy. The Research Integrity Officer is responsible for 1) assessing allegations of research misconduct, 2) overseeing inquiries and investigations; 3) communication with external entities as necessary, and 4) other responsibilities as described in this policy.

The term "research misconduct" is defined as: fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, as these terms are defined below, in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting the results, where the misconduct is committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly and is proven by a preponderance of evidence. It does not include honest error or honest differences in opinion, interpretations, or judgements of data.

  • The term “fabrication” is defined as making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • The term “falsification” is defined as manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record. The research record is the record of data or results that embody the facts resulting from the research inquiry and includes, but is not limited to research proposals, laboratory records, both physical and electronic, progress reports, abstracts, theses, or oral presentations, internal reports, books, dissertations, and journal articles.
  • The term “plagiarism” is defined as the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.

The term “respondent” is defined as the individual against whom the allegation of research misconduct is made.

The term "supervisor" is defined as the project leader, department head, dean, director, unit head, vice chancellor, chancellor, or other University employee to whom a member of the University community reports directly.

The term "unethical behavior in research" is defined as a breach of the above-referenced professional practices or ethical principles.

III. Details/Procedures

A. General Requirements- Inquiries, Investigations, and Reporting

  1. Duty to Report

Any member of the University community who has a reason to believe that a colleague is engaged in research misconduct has a duty to report the allegation to the Research Integrity Officer. Any supervisor that receives an allegation from a direct report must immediately share the allegation with the Research Integrity Officer. The Research Integrity Officer will evaluate all allegations in accordance with Section B below.

  1. Confidentiality and Privacy

The confidentiality and privacy of those who report apparent research misconduct must be protected to the maximum extent possible under the law.

To the extent possible consistent with a fair and thorough investigation and as allowed by law, information about the identity of the respondent, complainants, and research subjects will be limited to those individuals who have a need to know the information in the administration of this policy.

  1. Documentation of Proceedings

Detailed documentation of the proceedings and all written reports must be prepared and maintained for at least a seven-year period after the close of the inquiry or investigation. All documentation will be maintained in the Office of the General Counsel. 

  1. Suspension or Termination of Research During the Proceedings

If, at any time during the inquiry or investigation, sufficient evidence surfaces that warrants the termination of the research, the Chief Research Officer will notify the Principal Investigator(s) of such action and request that the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance and the Director of Research Administration take appropriate action to protect the federal or other funds supporting that research. 

The Research Integrity Officer shall take appropriate steps to inform any research sponsors of the investigation in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Accused parties may be suspended from the research project in question if the Research Integrity Officer determines that serious harm could result from their continuance. Any such suspension shall not relate to other duties at the University.

  1. Protection of Individuals Involved in Research Misconduct Proceedings

The University will undertake reasonable and practical efforts, as appropriate, to restore the reputations of the person(s) alleged to have engaged in misconduct when allegations are not confirmed. The University will be diligent in protecting the position and reputation of those persons who make allegations of research misconduct in good faith or serve as complainants in inquiries or investigations. Further, persons who make good faith allegations of research misconduct or serve as complainants will not be subject to retaliation, intimidation or any adverse employment action as a result of bringing an allegation or providing information under this policy.

Should the Chief Research Officer determine that the allegation was maliciously motivated or made in bad faith, he or she shall refer the complainant to the appropriate body for potential disciplinary action in accordance with established University policies.

B. Assessment of Allegations of Unethical Behavior, Non-Compliance or Research Misconduct

  1. Procedure for Reporting Allegations

A member of the University community who has reason to believe that research has not been, or is not being, conducted properly should report their concerns to the Research Integrity Officer, either orally or in writing. The Research Integrity Officer will evaluate whether the allegation potentially constitutes research misconduct, or other unethical behavior or non-compliance. 

  1. Allegations Potentially Constituting Research Misconduct

The Research Integrity Officer will assess whether the allegation is sufficiently credible and specific enough to constitute a possible case of research misconduct. If the allegation constitutes a possible case of research misconduct, an inquiry, as described in Section C, must be conducted. 

  1. Allegations Potentially Constituting Unethical Behavior or Non-Compliance

If the allegation does not constitute research misconduct, but constitutes other possible unethical behavior or noncompliance the supervisor of the respondent shall be informed in writing of the matter. This written report shall be prepared by the Research Integrity Officer. Upon receipt of the report, the supervisor of the respondent shall take action appropriate to ascertaining the accuracy of the allegation and take actions which are appropriate to correct and prevent recurrence of any unethical behavior or noncompliance and to discipline any individuals guilty of such practices.

If the allegation constitutes noncompliance involving the use of animals or humans as subjects the Research Integrity Officer will share the written report with the chair of the IACUC or IRB as appropriate.

  1. Allegations Without Merit

If the allegation is not credible and specific, or is determined to otherwise be without merit, the University will undertake all reasonable and practical efforts, as appropriate, to protect or restore the reputations of the respondent, and to undertake reasonable and practical efforts to protect the positions and reputations of those persons who, in good faith, made the allegations. 

C. Inquiry into Possible Research Misconduct

  1. Initiation of the Inquiry

After the Research Integrity Officer determines the allegation meets the definition of research misconduct and is sufficiently credible and specific so that potential evidence can be identified, a written, confidential report describing the allegation shall be prepared and sent to the Chief Research Officer. The Chief Research Officer will initiate the inquiry upon receipt of the report.

  1. Sequestration of Records

The Chief Research Officer may immediately sequester any research records or evidence deemed to be relevant to the allegation. After sequestration of evidence, the Chief Research Officer shall immediately and confidentially inform the respondent and the respondent’s supervisor of the allegation in writing. If during the inquiry additional respondents are identified, they will be notified in writing.

  1. Inquiry Process and Report

The Chief Research Officer and Research Integrity Officer shall conduct an inquiry using methods deemed appropriate to the circumstances. Once the inquiry is complete, the Chief Research Officer will generate a written report which will be provided to the respondent. The respondent will be provided an opportunity to respond to the inquiry report.

  1. Timeline for Completion of the Inquiry

The inquiry shall normally be completed within 60 calendar days. If the inquiry takes longer than 60 days to complete, the record of the inquiry shall include documentation of the reasons for exceeding the 60-day period.

  1. Decision to Initiate an Investigation

If the Chief Research Officer determines that an allegation reasonably falls within the definition of research misconduct and the inquiry indicates the allegation may have substance, an investigation shall be conducted as described in Section D.

  1. Documentation of Decision Not to Initiate an Investigation

Should the inquiry result in a decision by the Chief Research Officer that the allegation does not constitute research misconduct but does constitute other unethical behavior or noncompliance, then the Chief Research Officer shall refer the matter to the respondent's supervisor for action as described in Section B.3. The Chief Research Officer will generate a written report of the inquiry and document the decision not to proceed with an investigation.

Should the Chief Research Officer determine that research misconduct has not occurred, then all references to the allegation shall be removed from the respondent’s personnel files at every level and all materials relating to the allegation shall be forwarded to the Office of the General Counsel who shall be responsible for their security. Further, the University shall implement Section A.5.

D. Investigation into Potential Research Misconduct

  1. Initiation of the Investigation

If the Chief Research Officer determines that an allegation warrants an investigation based on inquiry findings, the Chief Research Officer will appoint an ad-hoc committee to conduct the investigation. At the time the investigation is initiated, the Research Integrity Officer shall take appropriate steps to inform any research sponsors of the investigation in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. The respondent may be suspended from the research project in question if the Research Integrity Officer determines serious harm could result from their continuance. Any such suspension shall not relate to other duties at the University.

In cases involving human subjects or animals, where there is sufficient preliminary evidence to suggest that the potential research misconduct may present an immediate or increased risk to the welfare of the humans or animals, the Chief Research Officer will notify the Chairperson of the IACUC or IRB who may immediately suspend the research activity, in accordance with committee procedures, pending the outcome of the investigation described below.

  1. Timeline of the Investigation

The investigation shall begin within 30 calendar days of the completion of the inquiry and must be completed within 120 calendar days after initiation of the investigation. If the investigation cannot be completed in 120 calendar days, the record of the investigation shall include documentation for exceeding this time period.

  1. Appointment of the Investigation Committee

The Chief Research Officer shall appoint an ad hoc committee consisting of a least three members including the Chief Research Officer as chair, the Research Integrity Officer, faculty, and other members of the University community or the broader community of scholars who possess the requisite expertise to conduct a thorough, competent, objective, and fair investigation. The Chief Research Officer will confidentially consult with the Faculty Senate Chair to identify faculty representatives with the appropriate expertise. The committee will take reasonable steps to conduct an unbiased and impartial investigation to the maximum extent practicable. No member of the committee will have any unresolved personal, professional or financial conflict of interest with the respondent or complainant.

  1. Sequestration of Research Records

At the same time the investigation is initiated the Chief Research Officer shall take appropriate action to sequester any remaining research records or evidence. All evidence and research records will be available to the ad-hoc committee during the investigation. If during the investigation, the ad-hoc committee becomes aware of newly identified research records or evidence, those may also be promptly sequestered. 

  1. Notification to the Respondent

After any remaining research records have been sequestered, the Chief Research Officer shall notify the respondent of the substantive allegations against them in writing and provide a copy of the inquiry report. If during the investigation any additional allegations or respondents are identified, those new respondents will be notified in writing. The respondent will be informed of the right to be interviewed by the ad hoc committee. The respondent will be notified within a reasonable amount of time before they are requested to appear before the committee.

  1. Investigation Process and Committee Report

The ad-hoc committee will examine all research records and evidence relevant to the merits of each allegation. The ad-hoc committee will interview each respondent, complainant, and any other witness who has been identified as having information relevant to the investigation. All significant issues or leads identified during the investigation will be pursued, including identification of additional instances of possible research misconduct.

A finding of research misconduct requires that the allegation (a) is an instance of plagiarism, fabrication, or falsification; and (b) there is a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and (c) the misconduct is committed intentionally, or knowingly, or recklessly; and (d) the allegation is proven by a preponderance of evidence.

The ad hoc committee will generate a written investigative report that describes the nature of the allegations of research misconduct, identifies and summarizes the research record and evidence reviewed, and includes a statement of findings for each allegation of research misconduct. The report will also include a copy of WCU’s policy on research misconduct. The statement of findings must include:

  1. Identification of whether the allegation constitutes fabrication, falsification, and/or plagiarism and whether it was conducted knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly;
  2. A summary of the facts and the analysis which support the conclusion and consider the merits of any reasonable explanation by the respondent;
  3. Identification of the funding source;
  4. Identification of whether any publications need correction or retraction;
  5. Identification of the individual(s) responsible for the research misconduct;
  6. A list of any current or known applications for funding support that the respondent has pending.

 7. Response to the Report by the Respondent

The respondent must be provided with a draft report and supervised access to the evidence. The respondent will be granted 30 days after receiving the report to submit comments or a response in writing to the draft report. The respondent’s comments, if provided, will be included in the finalized report. 

8. Decision by the Deciding Official

The finalized report will be transmitted to the Deciding Official. After reviewing the final report, the Provost may accept or reject all or any part of the ad hoc committee's findings or recommendations. The Provost shall normally make a decision within 30 days of receiving the ad hoc committee report. If the Provost’s determination varies from the final report, they will, in writing, explain the basis of their decision. The Provost may also return the report to the ad hoc committee and request further fact-finding or analysis. Should the Provost decide to take administrative or disciplinary action against the respondent, such actions shall be in accordance with established University policies and procedures for sanctions and dismissals, subject to the requirements of Section E below. After rendering a decision, the Provost shall communicate that decision to the respondent in writing, and shall authorize the Research Integrity Officer to make appropriate disclosures to granting agencies or other affected parties. 

  1. Documentation of No Finding of Research Misconduct

If the investigation determines and the Deciding Official concurs that neither research misconduct nor unethical behavior has occurred, then all references to the allegations shall be removed from all personnel files and all materials relating to the allegation shall be forwarded to the Office of General Counsel who shall be responsible for their security. The files must be retained for seven years. Further, the University shall vigorously implement Section A.5.

E. Administrative and Disciplinary Actions for Findings of Research Misconduct 

  1. Seriousness of the Misconduct

In determining what administrative or disciplinary actions are appropriate, the Provost should consider the seriousness of the misconduct, including, but not limited to, the degree to which the misconduct was knowing, intentional, or reckless; was an isolated event or part of a pattern; or had significant impact on the research record, research subjects, other researchers, institutions, or the public welfare.

  1. Possible Administrative and Disciplinary Actions

Administrative and disciplinary actions will be in line with the seriousness of the misconduct. With respect to administrative actions or discipline imposed upon employees, the University must comply with all relevant personnel policies and laws; With respect to administrative actions or discipline imposed upon students, the University must comply with all relevant student policies and codes.

  1. Criminal or Civil Fraud Violations

If the University believes that criminal or civil fraud violations may have occurred, the University shall promptly refer the matter to the appropriate investigative body. 

F. Reporting to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI)

Inquiries and investigations of research sponsored by federal agencies also have additional reporting responsibilities to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) as outlined below.

  1. Requirements for Immediate Notification of Proceedings to ORI

The University will notify ORI if there is an immediate health hazard involved, an immediate need to protect federal funds or equipment and individuals affected by the inquiry, or the research misconduct proceedings will be prematurely publicly reported. Further, if there is reasonable indication of possible criminal violation, ORI must be informed within 24 hours of receiving the information.

The University will promptly advise ORI of any developments during the investigation which discloses facts that may affect current or potential Department of Health and Human Services funding for individual(s) under investigation or that the Public Health Services needs to know to ensure appropriate use of federal funds and otherwise protect the public interest.

  1. Notification of Commencement of Investigation and Findings

The University will provide ORI with a copy of written findings that an investigation is warranted within 30 days of the date of the findings.

ORI will be notified that an investigation will be initiated on or before the date the investigation begins.

Upon completion of the investigation a report must be submitted to ORI within 120 calendar days of initiation of the investigation. The final report to ORI must describe the policies and procedures under which the investigation was conducted, how and from whom information was obtained relevant to the investigation, the findings, the basis for the findings, and include the actual text or an accurate summary of the views of any individual(s) found to have engaged in misconduct, as well as a description of any sanctions taken by the institution.

Documentation to substantiate the inquiry and investigation findings must be maintained by the University for at least seven years.

  1. Notification of Termination of Research Misconduct Proceedings

If the University terminates an inquiry or investigation of a federally funded project for any reason without completing all relevant requirements, a report of such termination shall be made to ORI, including a description of the reasons for such a termination.

  1. Request for Timeline Extension

If the investigation cannot be completed in 120 calendar days, WCU must submit to ORI a written request for an extension. The request should include an explanation for the delay, an interim report on the progress to date, an outline of what remains to be done, and an estimated date of completion.

  1. Limitations on Allegations

There is a six-year limitation on allegations unless the respondent renews any alleged research misconduct incident, or the ORI determines the alleged incident would possibly have had an adverse effect on public health or safety. 

  1. Record Requests by Federal Agencies

Upon request from ORI, any institutional record relating to the investigation must be transferred to ORI or the federal agency conducting an independent investigation.

IV. Policy Review

This policy shall be reviewed and revised as necessary every five (5) years.

V. Related Policies and Resources

This policy is meant to complement, not replace, other policies that may apply to conduct occurring during the research process, such as:

A. University of North Carolina or State of North Carolina Policies 

University or State personnel policies and procedures, policies relating to financial misconduct, policies relating to human or animal subject research, student codes of conduct, or other applicable policies.

B. Federal Policies and Procedures

Research which is required to comply with separate federal and institutional policies which conform to policies and rules implemented in response to the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Federal Policy on Research Misconduct; for example, The Health and Human Services Policies codified at 42 CFR Part 93.

C. Questionable Research Practices Policies

Nothing in this policy is meant to prohibit the adoption of policies and procedures addressing questionable research practices, which do not rise to the level of research misconduct, as defined in this policy, but which violate the traditional values of research, and are detrimental to the research process.

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