Potential whistleblowers with concerns about medical research conduct in the UK are being encouraged to have a quiet word with the UK Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences via a new telephone helpline.

Initially a three-year programme, the Panel was set up in April 2006 to provide a comprehensive service in support of research integrity and good practice to the health and biomedical sciences research community. It is backed by the major research funders and sponsors in health and biomedical sciences, including the Department of Health, Universities UK, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

The Panel’s work programme, which is being carried forward by the UK Research Integrity Office, includes developing a Code of Good Practice for researchers and research departments, and commissioning a training programme to support its implementation. The Panel also provides access to a Register of Advisers, experts in systems for research management to promote good conduct or in investigating allegations of misconduct.

For 'issues relating to misconduct'

The latest initiative is a confidential information and advice line for people “involved in issues relating to misconduct in research”. Dr Andy Stainthorpe, head of the Research Integrity Office – which will staff the helpline from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday – commented: “The telephone line is a quick and straightforward way of putting people in touch with the experts … The Research Integrity Office will provide the caller with guidance in the first instance and will refer them, if needed and if the caller agrees, to an expert adviser."

What the Office will not do is take any action. The Panel for Research Integrity in Health and Biomedical Sciences has no statutory powers, and investigations of alleged research misconduct will be left to the discretion of employers such as a university or National Health Service Trust. This has prompted some scepticism from the research community as to whether such an initiative may be counterproductive if it has no teeth.

Up to 1% of trials include misconduct element

As Professor Michael Farthing, chairman of the UK Panel Planning Group and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Medicine at the University of London, noted at the launch last year, it has been estimated that up to 1% of all clinical trials include an element of misconduct.

Since then, Farthing said, the level of interest in the Panel had grown steadily, yet there was “still a need to publicise the fact that such an outlet exists for the research community." A number of recent cases had underlined the importance of having the Panel in place, he added, and the helpline was “another step in providing an independent and confidential service to those who suspect research misconduct."

The helpline number is 0844 77 00 644 and will cost the caller 3 pence per minute from a BT landline.