Balancing Research Integrity And Academic Freedom Of Speech

Author:Mr James Murray
Profession:Taylor Vinters

Earlier this month, James Murray attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum's policy conference on protecting research integrity in the UK.

Among the attendees were leading experts from a variety of organisations which support research or rely upon its output, including Parliament, Whitehall, universities, research institutes, learned societies and charities.

At the conference, there was detailed discussion around the current state of research culture and integrity in the UK, the minimum standards to which those involved in research should be held and how those standards should be disseminated to the research community. Below is extracted James' contribution to the conference, which argues that insufficient attention has been given to the issue of how research integrity should be balanced with the law concerning academic freedom of speech in the UK.

There is a question, which was not addressed at the conference, as to whether the commitments in the consultation draft of Universities UK's revised concordat to support research integrity ("Concordat") strike the right balance with institutions' legal obligations to uphold academic freedom of speech ("AFOS"). Controversies around AFOS have recently gained significant publicity, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, so this is a question which merits careful consideration.

By way of brief definition, AFOS is a fundamental pillar of academic freedom and a subset of the general right to freedom of expression, in particular under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights ("ECHR"). For most institutions, the starting point will be their governing charter / statutes. They enshrine the obligation to "ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges" (see the Education Reform Act 1988).

Under English law, there are a variety of statutes which impact on AFOS - primarily the duty of academic institutions to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law for their staff and students. On top of that, public bodies (including universities) are required to take into account the ECHR and its related case law. In essence, this establishes that AFOS (once properly activated - which would include an assessment of various factors, including research integrity)...

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