Principles Governing Research at Harvard

In 1974, a Report of a Committee on Criteria for Acceptance of Sponsored Research in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was presented to the Faculty. It consisted of a preamble, a set of principles governing the conduct of research, and commentary on these principles. Only the (italicized) principles were voted by the Faculty. Amendments were voted on several occasions, most recently on October 20, 1987. In addition to the legislated principles currently in effect, this document contains an extensively modified and rearranged version of the unlegislated commentary accompanying the original report.


The rights of individual scholars to select their topics of research and sources of research support, to draw conclusions for which they bear sole responsibility, and to be protected from the imposition on their work of external goals or criteria are paramount to this academic community. Although these rights may sometimes lead to research that some members may regard as trivial, shoddy, or wrong, or to conclusions that may be misquoted or misused for purposes some members think undesirable, the alternative — allowing one segment of the academic community to impose its own standard of truth on another — poses greater risks.

The primary means for controlling the quality of the scholarly activities of this Faculty is through the rigorous academic standards applied in selecting its members. Only teaching members of the Faculty and a few others whose scholarly qualification have been thoroughly scrutinized[1] are accorded the right to serve as principal investigators and to seek external research support.

Guaranteeing scholars the right to conduct research that may not meet with the approval of colleagues does not absolve them of the obligation to defend their research to the community should the occasion arise. Scholars have a responsibility to make their case and to listen to reasonable criticism.

Although limitations on the rights of individual scholars to select research topics and to draw their own conclusions are undesirable, certain limitations on the methods and techniques of research are necessary and appropriate. Decisions on techniques that threaten human health, invade personal privacy without consent, or inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on any living things, and on programs that interfere with the research of other scholars by preempting space and facilities or committing the unrestricted funds of the University, warrant broader input.

The development of a specific set of standards to cover all foreseeable problems does not seem feasible. The range of possibilities is too broad. Moreover, truth cannot be pursued in an academic community whose members do not share a measure of mutual trust; no set of detailed criteria is an adequate substitute for this trust. The Faculty has therefore adopted general principles to guide it in preserving and protecting the freedom of research and in limiting research methods where necessary.


I. Any research agreement between the University and an external sponsor must have obtained some form of sanction in advance. The purpose of this sanction is to insure that the research conforms to the administrative and fiscal policies of the University, and to the present principles, and that it does not conflict with the rights of other scholars in the University, nor with other University commitments.

Ordinarily, research proposals between the University and an external sponsor are reviewed by relevant department chairs, the Dean of the Faculty, and the Office for Sponsored Programs. The final research agreement must be accepted by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. The scholarly judgment of the principal investigator is not reviewed and political criteria are not considered. Factors pertinent to department and decanal review include:

      1. availability and equitable allocation of space and facilities among faculty members and students in the department;
      2. commitments, explicit or implied, on the unrestricted funds available to the department or to the Faculty as a whole;
      3. commitments to personnel that are inconsistent with the general practices of the University, commitments of longer duration than the term of appointment of the principal investigator, etc.;
      4. inclusion in the budget of all costs legitimately chargeable to the project, such as fringe benefits, F&A costs, computer time, etc.;
      5. aspects that may require additional expert review, such as experiments with human subjects; and
      6. ethical issues at variance with law or generally accepted academic practice, potential conflicts of interest, etc.

Review by the Office of Sponsored Programs is intended to insure that the legal and fiscal interests of the University are protected and that detailed contract provisions involving patents and copyrights, restrictions on publication, external control over hiring practices, etc., conform with those previously considered acceptable by the University.

In accordance with a policy specifically endorsed by the Faculty Council and the Dean of the Faculty in 1970, institutional grants or program grants cutting across departmental lines and involving large resources are reviewed more extensively by the Dean of the Faculty, in consultation with the Committee on Research Policy. When the institutional commitment is sufficiently large, the concurrence of the Faculty Council and ultimately of the Faculty as a whole shall be sought.

II. The source of sponsorship and the purpose of the research must be of such a nature that they can be publicly disclosed. Ordinarily, every sponsor who is supporting or has supported a research project shall be identified in every publication reporting on that research.

The University often accepts anonymous donations. Withholding the names of donors who wish to avoid undue publicity is clearly not improper when their identities are known to responsible officers of the University, and the purposes of their gifts are fully known and sufficiently broad, e.g., buildings, unrestricted endowment, or scholarships. On the other hand, grants or contracts from anonymous sponsors are not appropriate because, in the case of sponsored research, anonymity tends to create a suspicion of hidden or unworthy motives. The University must never knowingly accept research projects with deliberately misleading titles or publicly misstated purposes.

The full text of a proposal and all the correspondence related thereto, other than confidential salary data, should be of such a nature that they could be made public without embarrassment to the University, the investigators, or the sponsor. On the other hand, the University has no obligation to make the full text of every research proposal publicly available either prior to the award of a grant or afterwards. In order to protect the ideas of the investigators and their personal privacy, pending proposals and related correspondence should be regarded as the property of the investigators and requests for information should be referred to them.

When scholars receive support for research conducted within, and identified with, the Faculty, they are expected to identify the sources of all support publicly along with any other relationships that might be construed as having an influence on their research. Exceptions to the requirement of public disclosure of financial support on relevant research publications must be approved by the Dean of the Faculty, the Committee on Research Policy, or the Committee on Professional Conduct.

III. The University will not undertake to grant any special or exclusive information to a research sponsor, nor will it accept research that carries security classification, requires security clearance of University personnel, or otherwise precludes general publication of results. Participants in research projects shall be selected by principal investigators in accordance with University policy based on scholarly and professional criteria. Research agreements may neither bar nor give sponsors the option to bar specific individuals or groups.

This provision is directed against proprietary research at the University; it is not intended to exclude personal collaboration with scientists from other organizations, nor in any way to limit normal informal scientific communication. Scholars must not give sponsors of University-based research information they would not be willing to give to other individuals or organizations upon request. The University may not accept contractual provisions that accord specific individuals special rights to information resulting from research.

This provision also prohibits the University from entering into research agreements that permit the sponsor to exercise a veto over the employment of specific individuals. Sponsors must not have, nor appear to have, the right to exclude specific individuals or groups from participating in research on account of their beliefs or backgrounds.[2] On the other hand, this principle is not intended to permit or to encourage principal investigators to withhold from sponsors information about the scholarly and professional qualifications of research participants, especially participants replacing individuals identified in a funded agreement.

IV. All research projects must be undertaken with the clear understanding that the investigators concerned have the full right to publish any results obtained by them, subject only to established safeguards for the protection of privacy or confidentiality of personal data.

Research agreements that require investigators to secure permission from a sponsor before they publish are unacceptable. Individuals may, in some instances, accept conditions on publication to which the University, as an institution, may not agree. These conditions must not, however, run counter to the sense of this principle and they must first be discussed with, and approved by, the Dean or the Chair of the Committee on Professional Conduct.

V. Any results obtained and any papers published or lectures given by investigators on research projects are the sole responsibility of the investigator concerned, and Harvard provides no institutional endorsement of the work or of the sponsor.

This principle is fundamental to free scholarship in the University. In agreeing to protect the freedom of scholars to pursue the truth as they see fit, the University shifts the burden of responsibility for the quality and integrity of the work onto individual scholars. To the extent that the academic community attempts to impose substantive intellectual or political criteria on the scholarly work of any single one of its members, it provides implicit endorsement of the substantive results of the work of all its members. In this sense scholarly freedom is indivisible. The risk that, under the authority of the University's name, error will be propagated by some its members is greatly exceeded by the risk that the truth may be suppressed as a consequence of academic censorship reflecting transitory intellectual or political fashions.

Although any sponsorship of research is based on some mutuality of interest between sponsor and investigator, the conclusion of a research agreement does not imply that either party accepts all of the goals of the other. In particular, the acceptance of a grant or contract does not impose the officially-stated purpose of the sponsor on the investigator, let alone the University. Nevertheless, individual investigators are expected to be sensitive to situations in which their own goals and values appear incompatible with the official goals of sponsoring agencies. Everyone must understand that the University's participation in facilitating a research agreement on behalf of one of its members in no way constitutes endorsement of the sponsor or the sponsor's goals.

VI. All research on living animals and on human subjects should follow the safeguards established by the University for such work.

Rules governing the participation of human beings as subjects in research have been in effect in this Faculty for several decades. They have been modified several times, partly in response to government regulations governing federally-sponsored research involving human subjects. The Faculty has stipulated that its Human Subjects in Research Policies be overseen by the Standing Committee on the Use of Human Subjects in Research. It has also stipulated that the use of living animals in research and teaching be overseen by the Standing Committee on the Use of Animals in Research and Teaching in accordance with the Guidelines for the User of Non-Human Vertebrae Animals in Research and Teaching.

[1] See Stipulations Regarding Research Appointments Within the Faculty and Affiliated Institutions . The process of approval of sponsored research should provide assurance to the faculty that the work to be undertaken is truly the responsibility of the named principal investigator and not merely a subterfuge to support without supervision the research of an individual who has not been selected by the usual faculty standards.

[2] Obviously, this provision does not prevent the University from accepting fair employment practice provisions and similar general legal requirements.