University beefs up research policies

A new policy for dealing with research misconduct will provide uniform standards for people involved in University-sponsored research, administrators and faculty said last week.

A pair of resolutions passed by the Faculty Senate on Jan. 21 bring GW’s “Policy and Procedures Regarding Allegations of Research Misconduct” in line with preexisting federal standards for academic integrity and offer more specific definitions for what constitutes a conflict of interest. Administrators are also planning a number of initiatives designed to teach faculty how to better manage their financial transactions when conducting University-sponsored research.

Whereas the previous codes – last amended in 1991 – focused primarily on medical and scientific research, the new policy has been reworded to include “all individuals at GW engaged in research, research training or research-related grants or cooperative agreements,” regardless of academic field.

“As a university, we want to have a policy for dealing with this kind of plagiarism and academic dishonesty, even it happens by someone who doesn’t have funding from the public health sector,” said Carol Sigelman, associate vice president for research and graduate studies. “The policy we have now was broadened to include people who have grants as well as those who don’t have grants, people in the medical school, people in the Law school or in the Elliott school or wherever.”

Language was added to cover “investigators” assisting professors in their projects in addition to the faculty members. The new policy also provides greater due process for those accused of wrongdoing, including the right to request a three-person panel to weigh in on an investigation and greater publicity to restore a researcher’s reputation if no misconduct is found.

In addition, the University will begin using more comprehensive disclosure forms to identify possible conflicts of interest, a move taken in response to the arrest of former professor Nabih Bedewi in October 2004.

Bedewi, who headed the University’s National Crash Analysis Center until June 2004, is charged with embezzling nearly $600,000 in federal funds slated for GW-run programs.

According to court documents, he transferred thousands of dollars to a company he owned and used the funds to pay for a Florida condominium and Washington Redskins tickets, among other things. He appeared at a preliminary hearing earlier this month. Following Bedewi’s arrest in October, University officials told The Hatchet that they would look to beef up GW’s conflict of interest policy.

While the old conflict of interest forms were only a single page and vaguely worded, faculty will now sort through an eight-page document asking specific questions meant to identify which types of activities could be problematic.

“I think this will make it clearer what you’re actually being asked to reveal,” Sigelman said. “In a situation (a faculty member) might be considering buying some kind of equipment for your own company … you would hope most faculty would be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.'”

It is unclear what impact the new measures will have on research. Several professors said they were not familiar with any changes in the policy and declined to comment. Some questioned whether the new disclosure forms might be considered intrusive.

“It might have a chilling effect if you have to disclose all your equities and holdings that might in any way conflict with the research you happen to be doing,” said Robert Harrington, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “There is an issue of privacy as far as the faculty are concerned. They don’t particularly want to divulge to the world in general what holdings they have.”

The resolution was amended to insure that the forms would be placed in envelopes marked “confidential” that would be opened only by those required to sign off on the documents. In addition to issues of privacy, some professors questioned whether the new policies would make a difference.

“I don’t think it will really have any impact,” said Charles Garris, professor of engineering and a member of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate. “We’ve always had a policy for dealing with academic misconduct, and this is really just polishing up what we did in the past.”

“In truth, it’s probably very few of the faculty who have these kinds of conflicts of interest, so I think the reaction of the faculty is just that this is kind of a hassle having to go through this seven- or eight-page form every year,” Garris added.

Sigelman said that while the new policies may be more explicit, it will still be possible for determined professors to skirt the rules. However, she hoped that the new measures might make some headway in identifying incidents of misconduct.

“I think it will help a lot with the vast majority of researchers and faculty who want to do the right thing,” Sigelman said. “Will it stop everyone who might consider being dishonest? I don’t know. But hopefully it will be a little harder.”

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