Creation of the French Office for Integrity in Science (OFIS)

Scientific Integrity in France
Creation of the French Office for Integrity in Science (OFIS)

by Michèle LEDUC
Physicist, Research Director emeritus at CNRS
Member of the CNRS ethics committee (COMETS)
Member of the Scientific Integrity Council (CSI) of the French Office for Integrity in Science (OFIS)

The CNRS, the largest research institution in France and in Europe, was long without any specific procedures for dealing with cases of frauds and scientific misconducts. Its ethical committee (COMETS), whose mission among others is to promote responsibility and integrity in research, repeatedly since 2012 formulated recommendations, which are now about to find appropriate solutions. Other research institutions had adopted procedures, all different form each other. INSERM (Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale) was the most advanced, making use of a Délégation à l’Intégrité Scientifique. Yet most universities for long did not feel really concerned.

Accompanying the growing international concern about ethics, deontology and integrity in the domain of superior education and research, a few institutions dealing with research in France took in 2014 the initiative to write a charter called “The French National Charter for Research Integrity (RI)”, a four pages document which clarifies the professional responsibilities ensuring a rigorous and trustworthy scientific approach in research. The charter was signed in January 2015 by the Presidents of four major institutions and by the President of CPU (Conference des Présidents des Universités). The charter was progressively signed by more and more partners. This charter appeared appropriately at a time when a clear case of fraud was made public in France, which triggered the general reflection of all institutions. The case was first revealed by the scientific social network PubPeer. A top-level biologist Olivier Voinnet, research director and silver medal at CNRS in the field of plant genetics, appeared to have manipulated and falsified figures in a number of past articles. Press articles reported the case in journals of large audience such as Le Monde and Les Echos, and others in Canada, Switzerland and UK. Of course this was not by far the only serious case of research fraud occurring in France, yet for the first time it happened to be openly revealed by large audience newspapers and created a shock wave in the public opinion about what to trust in science.

Such a situation gave a fresh impulse in France for dealing with RI at the national level. Thierry Mandon, Minister of Superior Education and Research, understood that the problem of trust in science was a crucial issue. He committed Pierre Corvol, biologist and medical doctor, professor at Collège de France and vice-president of Académie des Sciences, to write a report about RI. Pierre Corvol chaired an interdisciplinary committee of 12, missioned to analyze the situation at the French and international level and to elaborate recommendations to the French government. Meant for addressing the important challenges of  RI, the report focuses  on the efforts requested from the entire scientific community to follow up the principles of the  National Charter. The Corvol’s report called “Overview and propositions of implementation of the charter” included 16 operational proposals for reinforcing the protection of RI in domains such as laws, training and organization.  It was presented to the Minister Thierry Mandon and to the press in June 2016 and fostered RI through decisions taken at the national level.

In 2016 an official decision was taken by the Ministry of Education stating that all PhD students have to be trained in ethics and research integrity before their thesis defense. Such a training requires a determined effort in all the many doctoral schools of diverse disciplines. The training organization is just beginning and much is to be developed in order to disseminate the best practices. Internet lectures and advertising videos become available but need collective improvement and coordination.

Independently but simultaneously, great help was provided to RI by the promulgation in 2016 of a law about the rights and duties of civil servants. This law states that officers in charge of deontology have to be appointed in each institution and enterprise and that whistler-blowers must be encouraged and protected when revealing situations where people fail to respect the fundamental principles of the professional deontology. This law is quite general, actually applicable to research as well as to any other domain of public service. It triggered the idea of designating an Integrity Officer in each university, “grande école” and research institution. Let us just mention here that some clarification is still to be thought out between the words deontology, integrity and ethics, showing an overlapping meaning with subtle distinctions between each concept.

So far 70 Integrity Officers have been designated. Their number constantly increases but is still far from reaching the target: for instance one can recall that the number of universities in France is of order 90. According to the recommendations of the Corvol’s report, the Integrity Officer has to be a scientist, qualified in research, with no implication in the institution management, appointed by the head of the institution for a limited duration and reporting only to him. The Integrity Officer has a public mission, is granted suitable means, and can be easily found on the institution website and contacted by any person having a question about deontology or a scientific integrity problem (either a victim or a whistler blower). He or she is the first person to contact when a RI problems occurs, respecting the confidentiality rules as far as possible. Quite often the misconduct question can be solved with an appropriate mediation, for instance in cases of a conflict of signature for an article. Yet when a serious problem of scientific fraud is suspected (falsification and most frequently plagiarism), the Integrity Officer has to care that the procedure to deal with the fraud is clear and acknowledged by all the parties. He or she is responsible for the fairness of the case treatment, whatever the final conclusion of the expert committee set for checking the pertinence of the fraud allegations. So far there is a broad diversity of profiles among the Integrity Officers recruited all over France, according to the disciplines and the size of their institution. They form a network called RESINT, which regularly meets and discusses in order to share personal expertises.

As a result of the Corvol’s report, another decision was taken by the Ministry of Superior Education and Research: the creation of the OFIS, l’Office Français pour l’Integrité en Science (French Office for Integrity in Science) in September 2017. The goal of the OFIS is not to deal with individual cases but rather to act as an observatory for the implementation of the French National Charter for RI. Its general role is to coordinate and impulse the efforts of RI in all institutions. There is a need for harmonization and mutualization of good practices, as well as of procedures and sanctions in cases of scientific misconduct. The OFIS has a role to play towards the RESINT network of the Integrity Officers, both for promoting their work and for helping them in their training. At the same time the OFIS can be viewed as a platform for reflection about the causes and the typology of misconducts which is fast changing in the constantly moving context of the open science. Problems such as the non-reproducibility of research results, as well as the proliferation of junk science through predatory journals, are some important questions to be addressed.

The OFIS is created as a Department of HCERES (Haut Conseil de l’Evaluation de la Recherche et l’Enseignement Supérieur), a national agency meant for the evaluation of the institutions, laboratories and doctoral schools. A permanent staff is appointed for the OFIS including a Director, Professor Joëlle Alnot, and two part time associates. Reflection and advices are provided by the Council of Science Integrity (CSI), a committee of 12 respecting parity. The members of the CSI are all involved in research, they have diversified disciplinary expertise. Some are young researchers, others are experienced senior scientists. The CSI President is Olivier Le Gall, research director at INRA (Institute National de la Recherche Agronomique). Its website, still under construction, will provide bibliographic resources for all users, information about the institutions having signed the National Charter of RI, as well as the up-to-date list of the Integrity Officers. It will be an appropriate platform for disseminating the opinions and recommendations of the OFIS, and an attractive communication tool for the seminars, colloquia and conferences dealing with RI.

Clearly the OFIS with its CSI has just started existing and is still in a definition period. It is expected that it will significantly contribute to improve research integrity in France and confort a positive opinion about science in the society. It will have a crucial role to play at the international level and will favor all possible contacts with its European partners. One can hope that the OFIS will be and active and useful partner for ENRIO in the future.