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The following is a statement on activities undertaken by Research Governance (in collaboration with colleagues as appropriate) in support of research integrity and good research conduct during the period 1 January to 30 September 2021. This statement is intended to reflect the expectations of the Universities UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity (2019) (in particular Commitment 5 – Strengthening Research Integrity) and will be published on the University website.

1. Introduction

This statement has been prepared as a summary of activities carried out by the Research Governance section and colleagues across the University in support of good research conduct and research integrity during the academic year 2020/2021 (note: due to the recommended reporting period being the academic rather than calendar year, this document now covers the period 1 January 2021 to 30 September 2021).

2. Leadership and Culture

The following are extracts from an anonymous survey of staff views on the  research culture at Ulster, carried out during September/October 2020:

I agree or strongly agree that my school/unit of assessment supports a culture of:

  • research integrity - 72%
  • valuing quality over quantity – 58%

I agree or strongly agree that I:

  • feel comfortable seeking support from colleagues – 74%
  • know what makes good authorship practice – 82%
  • know where to go for information on research integrity – 78%

We believe that these are useful illustrations of a positive attitude towards research integrity and many of the foundations that support it.  However, the survey responses also indicated that there is still work to be done, particularly in allowing staff time and space to achieve their research and personal development goals and to support more junior colleagues, including the PhD researchers under their supervision, all of which are important in promoting, maintaining and embedding a culture of integrity.

These are matters that we will seek to address during the 21/22 academic year and beyond as we recover from the pandemic and develop a new institutional focus, including an updated research and impact strategy.

3. General policies and processes

The University’s Code of Practice for Professional Integrity in the Conduct of Research was reviewed, updated and republished during the summer of 2020 in time for the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year and, in particular, the annual intake of new PhD researchers. This document reflects the Universities UK Concordat and addresses, in a style appropriate to Ulster, the required precepts and commitments.  The University also has other policies, procedures and guidance to support researchers and to underpin the good conduct of research:

  • Policy for the conduct of research involving human participants
  • Policy for research involving the use of human tissue
  • Guidance on unacceptable sources of funding
  • Research participant complaints procedure
  • GDPR and the use of participants’ personal data
  • Open research
  • Open access
  • Data management
  • Intellectual Property
  • Guidance on authorship and publication
  • People & Culture policies on Equality, Whistleblowing, Bullying & Harassment
  • Concordat for Contract Research Staff

4. Oversight, Policy Setting & Review

Research Governance Steering Committee (RGSC) was scheduled to meet once during the reporting period to address operational and strategic matters and to review reports and minutes from subordinate committees. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the meeting scheduled for April 2021 took place online.

In turn, the minutes from RGSC were considered by Research & Impact Committee (RIC) and Senate.

RGSC will meet (or otherwise conduct appropriate business) twice during 2021/22 academic year (November 2021 and April/May 2022).

5. General communication with staff and students

Communication of policy requirements and procedural matters is via the University’s web pages, providing access to the Code of Practice for Professional Integrity in the Conduct of Research and the policies and procedures listed in 2. above.  Externally-facing web-pages include headline policies in the area and information relevant to funders, research partners and the public.

Internally-facing pages host details of the procedures to be followed by staff and students.

6. Research misconduct

The University’s procedures for investigating allegations of research misconduct are reviewed regularly and are compliant with the format recommended by Universities UK and the UK Research Integrity Office.

No new allegations of research misconduct were received during the period.

Recently completed investigations have prompted a review of the misconduct procedures, with consideration being given to the introduction of a stage in advance of any formal investigation which permits the Named Person to request details of any informal attempts made to resolve complaints/allegations, and where none have been undertaken and the nature of the allegations allows, to direct that such informal attempts should be made, subject to appropriate oversight.

The most recent case of research misconduct also illustrated that there was a gap in mentoring within the academic unit concerned, and it was recommended that senior staff in that area should set aside time to ensure that junior researchers are provided with the information they require to assist decision-making and good practice when preparing outputs for publication.

The revised procedures are proceeding through the University’s internal review process and will be published in advance of the 2022/23 academic year.

7. Research ethics – human participants (see also part 2 below)

The University’s Research Ethics Committee (UREC) was scheduled to meet on seven occasions between January and September 2021 but alternative arrangements were put in place due to COVID 19 restrictions.  UREC reviewed 38 applications during the period, covering a range of studies across disciplines in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and engineering. In addition, the Research Governance Office sponsored a further 19 studies taking place in NHS/HSC. Numbers of applications received were, not unexpectedly, significantly lower than in the previous reporting period due to the impact of the pandemic on human research activity.

The ethical review process at Ulster has been developed and structured to include peer input and learning which complements the more traditional ethical considerations.  Each application (whether UG, taught PG or PhD/Staff) goes through a multi-stage process including peer and filter committee review before proceeding to UREC or appropriate external ethics committee (eg HRA, MoD) if/as necessary.

Filter committees carry out the majority of ethical reviews and approvals, based on level of risk, with only the highest-risk projects requiring higher level review (for example NHS-based studies, new interventions, children, at-risk populations). Filter committee members include senior academic staff, recently appointed researchers/PhDs, and all levels of experience in between.  These committees, spread across all disciplines within the University, provide invaluable grounding in the review and conduct of human research at all levels of risk and complexity.

The ethical review and sponsorship confirmation process also ensures that, before a study receives approval, all researchers involved have completed a required minimum of training (including research integrity – see 11, 12 below – and, where appropriate, HTA awareness and NIHR Good Clinical Practice).

8. Regulation – animals

The University Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body (or AWERB) met twice during the period and reviewed (i) updates to membership, policies and procedural documentation necessitated by revisions to reporting procedures under the Animal Scientific Procedures Act and (ii) individual personal and project licence renewals and applications.  There are currently no outstanding matters of significance to be addressed. AWERB will meet three times in 2021/22.

In addition, the Biomedical and Behavioural Research Unit (BBRU) Management Committee, whose remit is to oversee general compliance and the efficient running of the animal research facility, met on two occasions during the period to review operational matters, advise on resources and ensure that staffing needs were addressed.

The formal annual inspection of the BBRU and meeting with the Establishment Licence Holder took place on 7 September2021.

9.Regulation – Human Tissue Act

The Human Tissue Act Working Group (HTAWG) was scheduled to meet twice during the period to review and resolve matters associated with the University’s licence from the Human Tissue Authority, including revisions to standard operating procedures, issues relating to facilities at Coleraine, Jordanstown, Clinical Translational Research & Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) and the NI Clinical Research Facility (NICRF), and freezer management, audits and personnel. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the meeting scheduled for April 2021 was replaced with an email update to members.

Since March 2019 the role of Designated Individual under the University’s HTA licence has been fulfilled by Dr P Allsopp.

No significant issues have been identified, but sample storage management and the availability of support personnel are kept under review to ensure consistency and viability across all licensed sites. The Group will meet twice in 2021/22.

10. Regulation – use of radiation (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry, or DXA)

The DXA Sub Committee was re-established in late 2018 as a sub-committee of Research Governance Steering Committee and the Faculty of LHS Health & Safety Committee, and is chaired by Dr J Cathcart. Its remit is to review practice, procedures and associated documentation on an ongoing basis to ensure viability, currency, compatibility/harmonisation across campuses/schools/RIs and the clarity of the roles and responsibilities of all involved in the process.

The Sub-committee met twice during 2020/21 to review membership, terms of reference, training requirements and implications for the University following an update to national regulations covering the clinical and/or research use of radiation. One of these was a virtual meeting due to COVID-19 restrictions. A third scheduled meeting was replaced with an email update to all members.

It will meet three times in 2021/22.

11. Supporting Research Integrity internally and externally

a. University Research Integrity Contacts

In keeping with the requirement of the Concordat to ensure that research integrity is embedded within the research community and is not viewed exclusively as a centralised or top-down imposition, a network of Research Integrity Contacts (RICs) is in place.  Their role is to deal with local queries and concerns with reference to Research Governance and appropriate resources where required. The role of RICs is advisory and they are not expected to act in any investigative capacity. This role will be reviewed during the 2021/22 academic year.

b. Ulster’s Research Integrity Course

This course was originally created as guidance for new PhD researchers, but has developed and expanded to become mandatory for all researchers at the University, including those conducting research projects at Masters and UG level. For staff, it is monitored against set targets and the completion rates are regularly reported to Associate Deans and Research Directors. 130 staff either completed or revisited the course during 2020/21.

Completion illustrates a pro-active attitude towards research integrity and was included as a component of the REF2021 return on Ulster’s research environment. There is full completion in some areas, particularly those where access to human participants is required, while in other areas, although improving, the completion rate remains lower. The overall completion rate is 98% based on REF SRR staff. Monitoring will continue for 2021/22.

The course was also successfully completed by 112 PhD researchers (it is mandatory for this group) during 2020/21. Completions by undergraduate and taught postgraduate students whose courses include a research module or dissertation are not aggregated or monitored, but are recorded on an individual basis.

c. Outside Ulster

Collaborations involving capacity-building in ethics and integrity have been undertaken locally (including with partner organisations and institutions) and overseas, including – for example - research partners and NGOs in Colombia and Mexico as part of the UKRI-funded Safewater project.

12. Training

a. Research Integrity

See 11b above.

b. Research Ethics

5 PhD researchers attended the course An Introduction to Research Governance and Ethics during the reporting period in this document (1 January to 30 September 2021). These sessions continue to be well-attended and will be repeated twice during 2021/22.

c. Human Tissue Act

Research and consent – Research Governance, in collaboration with staff from Biomedical Sciences, provided training to 101 staff and students during the period. The course and supporting materials were recorded and uploaded to an online platform and are now available at any time, although a return to face-to-face instruction will be considered when circumstances permit.

d. Research staff and students

Staff in Research Governance were invited to speak at a number of RI and faculty “away days”, filter committee meetings and general events. This will continue in 2021/22.

13. Future Developments in Research Integrity at Ulster

The University’s existing research strategy runs to August 2022 and a new strategy is currently in development.

This new research strategy, which will run from 2022 until 2027, will be informed by the University’s performance in REF21, recognising recent strategic investments and those currently being implemented (eg. Graduate Medical School, City and Growth Deals) and will include several themes and components which directly and indirectly relate to the future of research integrity.

It is being developed through a wide-ranging consultation. Representative teams have been established to review and advise on research culture within the University. Research integrity is a cross-cutting theme of several of these groups, particularly those focusing on Early Career Research, Inclusion & Diversity, Practice-based Research, Open Research & Innovation and Research Leadership, Esteem & Engagement.

14. Audits undertaken by Research Governance

No audits were carried out during the period due to COVID-19 restrictions as it was not possible to review participant consent forms (normally hard copy) and human samples.

All HTA studies are audited once in their lifetime; other studies are selected for audit randomly but in proportion to the number of active studies in any given discipline area. Audits will resume when appropriate.