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Teaching value-based ethics to prevent research misconduct: the case for early education

Research is governed by a set of rules or principles - both explicit and implicit - that ensure the ethicality of research efforts within the academic community. And when an individual becomes a researcher, it is understood their behaviour builds upon their previous education and schooling experience.

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer

Research is governed by a set of rules or principles - both explicit and implicit - that ensure the ethicality of research efforts within the academic community. And when an individual becomes a researcher, it is understood their behaviour builds upon their previous education and schooling experience. This background invariably informs their approach to truth-seeking and scientific discovery, and will presumably set them on the right path. But what if previous experiences undermine the practice of honesty in research, instead of supporting it?

There are myriad, intersecting reasons for the occurrence of research misconduct, but a common denominator in decision-making to either maintain or breach research integrity, is the set of personally-held values one holds to be true. In fact, in a 2019 Swiss study exploring how researchers acquire and develop notions of research integrity, “early childhood education and upbringing was described by participants as the key influence on their attitude towards research integrity”.

Now consider the increasing attention and energy being devoted to detecting and addressing research integrity breaches amidst a landscape of growing global research competition and the pressures of the ‘publish or perish’ philosophy. The rise in formal research policy guidelines and training programs designed to mitigate risk amongst existing researchers serves an important purpose, but is there merit in earlier intervention? Should there be more focus placed on research education measures that coincide with the formation of values and ethics during secondary schooling and the undergraduate years?

We explore the case for early education to help prevent susceptibility to research misconduct and thereby reduce the harm associated with dishonest research outcomes.

The link between research integrity and personal values

A researcher, or any person for that matter, doesn’t make a lasting commitment to ethical practice without understanding and subscribing to the values that underpin it. Honesty. Trust. Fairness. Respect. Responsibility. Courage. These 6 values, which form the International Centre for Academic Integrity’s (ICAI) definition of academic and research integrity, give meaning to ethical frameworks that guide academics and researchers in their pursuit of knowledge. And these values go beyond the academic or research context, penetrating all areas of our lives from early childhood. Values are deep-seated by nature, and their absence is equally powerful. It stands to reason that many values related to research integrity are formed well before one inhabits the role of researcher; carried forward into adulthood from their subjective experience and personality traits.

In the provocatively titled article ‘Is research integrity training a waste of time?’, author Gemma Conroy references the aforementioned Swiss study as it relates to the notion that childhood education and personality traits are a better predictor of how ethically researchers will conduct their work, compared to formal training programs on research integrity in adulthood. The qualitative study by Priya Satalkar & David Shaw sampled researchers from 5 universities in Switzerland across three seniority levels, to gauge their own perceptions on key influences for their attitudes and behaviours towards ethical research.

Conroy writes that “while around 40% of the respondents believed that research integrity training should be included in undergraduate courses, they argued that applying these concepts to lab work demanded an innate sense of honesty and fairness.” Alongside support for research-specific training to be incorporated earlier in the university journey, there is acknowledgement that its success hinges on the pre-university experience where values and personality traits are being actively developed as part of identity formation.

Research integrity values versus norms

When pinning down one’s motivation to act ethically in research, another consideration is values versus norms, and whether the two get conflated. Studies in social dynamics have made the distinction that values are understood as “what one finds important in life”, whereas norms motivate humans on the basis of accepted and rewarded behaviour in a group or society. Research norms and policies are pivotal in guiding researchers to follow protocols for research rigour and publish trustworthy research, but they don’t capture the full story. This is illustrated in a 2019 study by a group of researchers from the Netherlands, who explored the limitations of research guidelines, stemming from the premise that “codes of conduct typically do not specify how to handle situations where different norms pull in different directions”.

The idea that sustained values of research integrity run deeper than prescribed norms is alluded to in US chemist and educator Joel H. Hildebrand’s assertion: “[Scientists] proceed by common sense and integrity. There are no rules, only the principles of integrity and objectivity, with a complete rejection of all authority except that of fact” [source]. Alongside these ‘rules’ manifest in research codes of conduct, the implication is that personally-held values or principles are the driving force behind commitments to research integrity. Of course, this is not to say that research values are immune to corruptibility.

Research interest risks

The nature of the beast means that research interests are rarely clear-cut and can frequently be in competition, causing ethical conflicts for individual researchers as they navigate stakeholder expectations. Misconduct creeping into research can take many forms, but the Falsification, Fabrication and Plagiarism (FFP) grouping of academic misconduct known as the trinity of research deceit, gets the most attention. And when push comes to shove - with research funding and institutional reputation on the line - what makes some researchers take the moral ‘high road’, however inconvenient, while others overlook norms and bend the rules for personal or institutional gain?

In their landmark study, Priya Satalkar and David Shaw found that the rationale for their interviewees’ resolve to act with integrity even in the face of adversity, involved long-held values from childhood tied to their self-worth. It led to their somewhat bleak conclusion that “while it is possible to teach researchers at this [PhD] stage research integrity rules, it might be far too late to imbue them with integrity that they do not already have.” It’s a sentiment echoed in a recent 2021 study which determined that introducing research integrity information for the first time at the PhD level is “far too late to be relevant” and must be carried forth from a researcher’s previous experiences.

The message here is that early intervention holds the key, and that some form of academic and research integrity should begin well before postgraduate studies - ideally in secondary education, for maximum impact. And when the proverbial ‘ship has sailed’, research integrity training at the PhD level is still a worthwhile exercise to promote ongoing scrutiny and self-regulation. Attention must turn to institutions helping prime researchers throughout their professional career, irrespective of the strength of their personal value framework.

Positive, proactive research integrity measures

If you’re an avid reader in the academic community, you may have noticed that the topic of research integrity generally only arises in the news when it is negatively framed; the result of a breach of research conduct, rather than a demonstration of good research practice. In a 2018 study by David Shaw and Priya Satalka on researchers’ interpretations of research integrity, it was found that although a small number of participants defined research integrity narrowly in terms of the ‘absence of misconduct’, most interpreted integrity far more holistically. However, just because a subset of researchers may appreciate the value-driven nature of acting ethically, that doesn’t necessarily mean our institutional structures are set up to support a culture of positive research integrity.

The concept of positive research integrity is explored in another recent 2021 study focused on research integrity dialogue and discourse, which describes it as a “positive approach in building a culture of research and scientific ethics based on values and good research practices, promoting exemplary behaviours and fostering public trust.” The authors observe its limited use in favour of risk aversion tactics to deter research misconduct, and evaluate strategies for teaching research integrity in ways that offer greater potential for ethical behaviours to thrive. According to them, proactive discussions that encourage the sharing of ‘judgements and rationales’ make the issue of research integrity more personally relatable and opens the door for opinion change amongst pupils, students and young researchers.

Using positive reinforcement tactics to support the growth of research integrity is reminiscent of Turnitin’s Integrity Matters conversation with Dr Daniel Barr, Principal Research Integrity Advisor at RMIT University in Australia. He explains how research integrity efforts and success across Asia Pacific and indeed the globe, are hampered by narrow definitions that fixate on what it isn’t, and what it shouldn’t be; calling for a more robust conceptualisation. Daniel also contends that the research community doesn’t formally reward good integrity practice in itself, unless it is attached to accolades from publishing success. As such, it risks reinforcing unhealthy attitudes to securing published work at any cost, and at the expense of ethics. Observing a deficiency in how we measure researchers during the research process, he suggests better mechanisms to showcase how well they’ve done in research-writing, how well they’ve looked after data, and the like. In this way, we can champion displays of research integrity and encourage better uptake of its principles.

Building a culture of research integrity

A culture of research integrity clearly involves a lot more than just a discussion of research misconduct after the fact. Risk aversion is a powerful motivator and services like ‘Retraction Watch’ serve a useful purpose in exposing research impropriety. But equally important is positive reinforcement to unite values and aspiration as it relates to responsible research. By making academic integrity, and by extension, research integrity an early fixture of the schooling experience, it will help to weed out deliberate acts of deception and turn them into teachable moments that reduce their occurrence in later life. It will also help address inadvertent misconduct in the form of ‘shortcuts’ or bad writing habits by students, essentially nipping it in the bud before it sets a precedent that is carried into higher degree research and professional practice.

But how can we harness value-based ethics in the secondary school setting and bridge the gap in understanding towards what is required for higher education? There is no simple answer to this question, as it’s a new and emerging consideration for many institutions across the world. It will, however, gain traction as countries regroup on research integrity in the wake of rising detection levels of research misconduct. An example of progress in this field is an initiative by the Association for the Promotion of Research Integrity (APRIN) in Japan. Their e-learning platform offers a variety of teaching materials for ‘RSE’ (research in secondary education), including a code of ethical conduct and activities that reinforce students’ role in research, even beyond direct participation. Their core message that “in contemporary society, we are all involved in research activities”, reflects the societal impact of research and supports a broader, more inclusive culture of research integrity.

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