Country Report Belgium (Flanders)
(National) Research Integrity Landscape
Flanders, the Dutch-speaking (and most populated) part of Belgium has a (sub)national (institutional) structure for research integrity. This is a commission with opinion-making authority in the field of research integrity, both in terms of public, general advice as in terms of second advice on research misconduct cases that have been previously investigated in a research institute. It took the Netherlands as an example in setting up its (sub)national structure for research integrity.
In October 2013, for a part of Belgium (Flanders), a (sub)national framework for research integrity, the Flemish Commission for Research Integrity (hereafter the VCWI), was voluntarily and jointly established by the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and Arts (KVAB), the Royal Academy of Belgium for Medicine (KAGB), the Funding Agency for Scientific and Strategic Research-Flanders (FWO), the then IWT, and the 5 public universities in Flanders (KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, University of Ghent, University of Hasselt, Free University of Brussels). The VCWI is monitored by a Supervisory Committee in which VCWI’s founders are represented. Other research institutions than the founding institutions can acknowledge the advisory power of VCWI. At present, the VCWI has 18 member organisations including its founders. The VCWI is independent of its Supervisory Committee and affiliated member organisations including its founders.
VCWI operates within the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and Arts (KVAB). The Science Academy provides a policy officer as VCWI secretary and facilities like meeting rooms. This Academy KVAB is financed by the Flemish Government by means of a convenant, in which KVAB’s responsibility to support VCWI is enshrined.
The VCWI is governed by VCWI’s Regulations, VCWI’s Rules of Procedure, and the (2017 revised) European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity.
VCWI’s mission is (1) to give general advice on good science practice to its member organisations and non-member organisations within Flanders, on request of the aforementioned or on its own initiative; and (2) to act as a second advisory body only, by giving a second opinion on alleged research misconduct in the form of an advice to its member organisation that investigated a specific case earlier. The VCWI took (the LOWI of) the Netherlands as an example in that it also chose to act as a second advisory body only in handling requests on alleged research misconduct. The VCWI does not give or organise trainings. It does organise annual meetings in which it brings together (its member) organisations and other key players in the field of research integrity to share experiences and to learn from each other.
The VCWI started its activities in October 2013 after its members were appointed in July 2013 by the Supervisory Committee. The VCWI is authorized to investigate and to give second opinions in alleged cases of research misconduct. It does not mediate.
The VCWI consists of 11 (Flemish) members, of which 9 with voting right: 3 members must represent the disciplines of exact and applied sciences, 3 the biomedical sciences, and 3 the human and social sciences. These (9) members must be related to one of the Flemish (member) universities as full professor (or emeritus). These 9 members with voting rights are nominated and appointed by the Supervisory Committee for a 4-years-term to a maximum of 8 years. Based on the Revised Regulations of 2019, this term can be extended to a maximum of 10 years. The VCWI is supported by a legal adviser and a secretary without voting rights.
Scope and remit
The scope of the VCWI in handling research misconduct is not nationwide: it only covers Flanders, the Flemish (Dutch) speaking part of Belgium (6.5 million inhabitants in Flanders, out of 11.3 million inhabitants in Belgium).
Within Flanders its investigatory authority is restricted to its member organisations. It cannot act on its own initiative in starting an investigation on research misconduct in member or non-member organisations within Flanders. It can give general advice, though, on good science practice to its member organisations and non-member organisations within Flanders on request or on its own initiative. The remit of the VCWI is restricted in that it serves as a second advisory body only. The VCWI can only be addressed with a request for a second opinion, after the local Committee for Research Integrity of one of its member organisations has investigated a reporting of alleged research misconduct and made an advisory report. Following this local Committee’s (preliminary) advice, (a representative of) the institution, the reporter and/or accused in first instance can address the VCWI. The local Committee for Research Integrity cannot call upon the VCWI. The VCWI does not handle anonymous requests nor alleged research misconduct cases of students on bachelor- or master level.
For a request to be admissible to the VCWI, a request must be submitted in writing within 30 (calender) days after the local Committee for Research Integrity has communicated its advice. Under the Revised Regulations of 2019, the request must be submitted 30 (calender) days after the requesting party has received the Committee’s advice. Furthermore (i) the advice of the local Committee for Research Integrity of the member organisation must be attached to the request (ii) the request must be sufficiently justified, and (ii) the request must address the specific questions which are the basis for the second opinion requested. Next, the VCWI starts with a preliminary review of competence: when it considers itself competent, the VCWI hears the parties involved (reporter, accused, institution’s committee) and may obtain witnesses testimonies and expert opinions. Upon completion of the investigation, the VCWI composes a second opinion. VCWI’s hearings are not public.
Duty of confidentiality
VCWI’s Regulations determine that (any one involved within the) member organisations during VCWI’s procedure has a duty of confidentiality. VCWI’s members, the reporter-in-second-instance, eventual experts and witnesses before being heard or information is given to them, have to sign a statement of confidentiality. Under the Revised Regulations of 2019, a statement of confidentiality applies only to VCWI’s members. Possible experts and witnesses have to commit themselves to a duty of confidentiality before being heard or information is given to them. Of the reporter-in-second-instance and the accused, a so-called serene attitude is expected according to which they are obliged to withhold from public or provocative expressions. When the VCWI is of the opinion that a serene judgment of the questions regarding research integrity is no longer possible, it can at all times take any decision that it deems appropriate.
Definition of research misconduct
For the VCWI, in concluding whether there is research misconduct, the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity is decisive together with, if any, the more detailed guidelines of the affiliated research institution in question. National and international codes and regulations can also be taken into consideration by the VCWI. For research misconduct, the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity refers to fabrication, falsification and plagiarism and examples of other unacceptable practices of a serious nature. Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.
VCWI’s second opinions hold a judgment on the extent to which the advice of the local Committee for Research Integrity is (un)founded. These reports can also contain recommendations on further actions. In judging, the VCWI investigates (i) whether there is a violation of responsible conduct of research, according to the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity and possible other applicable guidelines (like those of the member organisation in question or the journal) and (ii) whether the procedure has been followed properly according to the regulations of the member organisation concerning the handling of allegations on research misconduct. If the VCWI has the opinion that (a part of) a case should be thoroughly investigated, but the institution’s committee did not, the VCWI will not investigate. It can however recommend the institution to conduct an additional or new investigation. The VCWI must write its second opinion within 6 months after the first meeting on the case. Under the Revised Regulations of 2019, this 6 months term can be extended to maximum 9 months. The VCWI must address and send its second opinion to the board of the member organisation, with a copy to the reporter and the accused, dependent if all are involved in VCWI’s procedure. Under the Revised Regulations of 2019, the VCWI in all cases must send a copy to the Committee for Reseach Integrity. VCWI’s second opinions are non-binding.
The advice by VCWI is already a second opinion. The institutions decide on the measures to be taken. Appeal is not possible within VCWI.
Follow-up and monitoring
In light of harmonisation and with the purpose of having an overview on whether or to which extent VCWI’s second opinions are being followed, VCWI’s member organisations and its Committees for Research Integrity must promise to take VCWI’s second opinions into consideration. Under the Revised Regulations of 2019, both have an obligation to report to which extent VCWI’s second opinion has been followed by them.
The VCWI must annually inform the Supervisory Committee of its work by means of an Annual Report that includes VCWI’s second opinions, in anonymised and summarized form. In this way, the Supervisory Committee – that is not entitled to have insight in cases or in the full contents of VCWI’s second opinions – keeps an overview on VCWI’s work, the number and the nature of research misconduct cases, the procedures according to which cases are being handled, and on the nature of VCWI’s second opinions. The Annual Report is published on the website of the VCWI in the Dutch language (only).
For further information, see: www.vcwi.be
For questions, e-mail to: Bert Seghers, VCWI’s Secretary (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Last update: May 2019