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Research Data: Institutions are key to management and post-publication concerns

Guest article

Susan Garfinkel, Ph.D. Assistant Vice President for Research Compliance, The Ohio State University

Researchers know that an accurate and detailed record is an essential part of their research project. But when problems arise with respect to collecting, maintaining, or storing research data, many researchers cannot tell you what to do or who to contact. Proper data management is particularly important if the credibility of research results are questioned and journal editors become involved in correcting the research record.  

Although it may be unknown to researchers, and maybe to some editors, most U.S. institutions have research data policies that describe the rights and responsibilities of the university, faculty, staff and students with regard to the collection, use, maintenance and storage of research data. Institutional research data policies have developed based on federal policy, which dictates standards for the administration of grants and agreements with institutions of higher education, hospitals, and other non-profit organizations. These polices clarify the ownership and stewardship of research data generated at institutions with sponsored funds.  Because research funds are awarded to the institutions and not to individual investigators, the institutions have the responsibility to oversee management of the data, and as such, retain ownership of the data.  Institutional policies clarify research data retention according to federal policies and consistent with institutional record retention schedules, which is especially critical to support the authenticity or accuracy of the data after it is published. Research data policies often delegate responsibilities to the principal investigator (PI) for the collection, access and use of research data. These policies are typically managed and implemented by the Research Integrity Officer (RIO) who is part of an institution’s office for research integrity or research compliance.

So, what happens when an editor is faced with concerns about published research results? With careful consideration given to the potential for research misconduct, questions should likely be referred to an institution. Undoubtedly, editors are regularly confronted with many questions about research data much less significant than research misconduct, and those questions can appropriately be answered by the PI or corresponding author.  However, when significant concerns arise that may be related to potential research misconduct, alerting the authors could do more harm than good. The RIO is often the institutional official who deals both with implementing policies for research data and handling alleged research misconduct. With issues of potential research misconduct, the RIO knows the steps required to secure the research record and ensure proper procedures are followed. A call to the RIO, even to discuss hypothetical concerns, is likely to be beneficial. 

Another article in this issue details the development of a RIO directory by the Association of Research Integrity Officers (ARIO), to identify RIOs more easily. Institutions and journals have become acutely aware that solving post-publication data problems will take a concerted effort with all of us working together. Knowing how to find the RIO, and when to call the institution, is a good place to start.  

A research integrity issue: Who are you going to call?