Bullying, harassment and misconduct in research

Pipette and test tubes Read more about the BHF policies on bullying, harassment and research misconduct and what this means for you.

The British Heart Foundation has been at the forefront of research into heart and circulatory diseases for nearly 60 years. We support innovative and cutting-edge research through funding of researchers at all stages of their careers. With that funding, however, comes the expectation that all of our funded researchers, and their host institutions, foster a constructive and positive research culture and environment.

We regularly review our policies to keep up-to-date with the ever-changing research landscape and we want to clarify our commitment to sustaining a positive research culture by formalising some of our requirements in two new Policies: one on Bullying and Harassment and the other on Research Misconduct.

What is workplace bullying and harassment?

Workplace bullying is any persistent behaviour that is directed towards someone and is intimidating, offensive, insulting or malicious. Among many other examples, this could include shouting, swearing, unjustified negative and persistent comments, aggressive behaviour, humiliation or intimidation and an abuse or misuse of power.

Harassment is any form of unwanted behaviour that violates a person's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. Harassment and intimidating behaviour can affect anyone and can be on grounds of any identifying point of difference like gender, race, ethnic origin, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, religion or age. Harassment is often specific to the person and their feelings of being harassed or demeaned.

Harassment and bullying can take many forms and examples include any unwanted, unwelcome or unpleasant deliberate physical contact, invasion of personal space, unsolicited and unwanted gifts, use of jokes, offensive language, gossip, e-mails or posters in order to offend, coercion for sexual favours, unwanted propositions or any repeated and deliberate attempt to marginalise someone.

While personal opinions on behaviour may vary, everyone should expect to feel respected in their work place and safe to state when they find someone else’s behaviour inappropriate.

Bullying and harassment occur when actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient. It’s not enough for the harasser or bully to use the excuse that they don’t feel their behaviour is at fault, or that they didn’t know their conduct might be a problem.

What is research misconduct?

We use a widely recognised definition of research misconduct. It is defined as “behaviour or actions that fall short of the standards of ethics, research and scholarship required to ensure that the integrity of research is upheld”. This includes fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or deception in performing or reviewing research, and in reporting research outputs.

For example,

  • omitting relevant data
  • manipulating images
  • misusing data by deliberately attempting to re-identify people from research data

It does not include honest differences that evolve in research from the design, execution or interpretation in evaluating research methods or results, or research of poor quality unless this encompasses the intention to deceive.

I’m a manager – how does this affect me?

We know managers need to manage their teams. We know this can involve issuing instructions and expecting them to be carried out, setting performance goals, having difficult conversations or disciplinaries for misconduct. These policies are not meant to hinder the everyday working of researchers in what can be a fast-paced and pressured environment, but to address the circumstances where behaviour is not up to the standard we demand of our funded scientists. The vast majority of the scientific community behave with the very highest principles, but we must ensure all our researchers have access to support in the event that this is not the case.

I’m being bullied or harassed, or I’ve seen scientific misconduct by a colleague – what does this mean for me?

Being the subject of bullying or harassment or witnessing misconduct and making a complaint can be an extremely distressing experience. We want you to feel confident that your employer and funders have put in place robust policies to ensure you get the support you need. You can also request to remain anonymous throughout proceedings.

Any institutions that host BHF-funded researchers must have clear and robust systems in place to deal with any complaints you have, and the HR team at your place of work should be your first port of call.

All investigations will be carried out by the institution that employs the scientist but if you would prefer to come to us first, we can discuss the circumstances of the allegation with you, we may encourage you to report the allegation to your employing institution, or inform the institution on your behalf. Please contact the Head of Research Funds at [email protected] if you’d like to talk to us before making an allegation to your HR department.

I represent an institution that employs BHF-funded researchers – what do we need to do?

Each institution that employs BHF-funded researchers is required to have policies in place that clearly set out the standards it expects from staff and how they deal with behavioural or misconduct complaints.

As the employing institution, you are ultimately responsible for following your own procedures for handling any allegations of bullying, harassment and research misconduct, but you must tell us ([email protected]) in confidence when a decision is made to formally investigate any and all grievances of this kind.


You must also tell us of any active investigations or sanctions into a researcher if they apply for funding from us as a principal investigator or co-applicant, or are a named member of staff on an application, and keep us informed of any findings. We will not take any action until an investigation is final but may suggest holding the application until the outcomes are clear.


We would suggest that the grant submission process involves someone who would have knowledge of any active or pending investigations or sanctions.


It is the legal responsibility of the host institution to carry out investigations into bullying or harassment but we expect any and all findings to be made available to us. We discourage the use of non-disclosure agreements that would prevent individual people and organisations from sharing information that could provide development and learning opportunities for all involved.

What can the BHF do?

Where an allegation is upheld, we reserve the right to apply our own sanctions on top of any initiated by your institution. Your institution is also at risk of sanctions if we believe that it has failed to investigate claims in an appropriate and timely manner and provide a safe and supportive working environment for our funded researchers.

We will not undertake our own investigations in bullying and harassment and will rely on the institution’s processes. However, in cases of allegations of research misconduct or fraud, due to our financial involvement, we may undertake our own investigations but this would only be in exceptional circumstances and after consultation with your institution.

For any information shared with us, the BHF is committed to ensuring that confidentiality is maintained. We have put in place a secure system that will only be accessed by a limited number of senior staff members, including our Head of Research Funds, our Medical Director and our Associate Medical Directors.

We know that the vast majority of researchers carry out their research with utmost integrity and professional conduct. These new policies will make no difference to your everyday working and you can continue to carry out your outstanding research which we are proud to support.

Find out more about why we've introduced these policies