Integrity and ethical practice

There was a suggestion at one point that... one of... the guys... did a little about [my research topic] in his PhD ...a suggestion, not by him, but by my direct line manager, that perhaps I include him on one of my papers. ...with him not involved in design, not involved in collection, not involved in analysis, not involved in literature - nothing! Put him on a paper! And I said "no". But there's that pressure ... a lot... the belief is that I'm here to get these guys publications...

This quote provided by a researcher demonstrates one of the many issues related to research integrity that researchers and DPhil students have expressed concern about. Yet, little attention seems to be given to research integrity - less than 20% of Oxford graduate student respondents to a recent survey confirmed that ethical issues around the thesis are often discussed at supervisory meetings (Student Engagement Survey, Hilary 2013).

While reference to resources related to different aspects of integrity and ethical practice in the conduct of research are embedded in different sections of this website, this page brings together in one location a range of resources that may be useful for supervisors and students. The Research Services website on Research Integrity and Ethics also offers links to relevant University policies and procedures, together with related information and online training. A Research Integrity leaflet is also available: it could be useful to research students and early career researchers.

For individual researchers, research integrity has been defined as a range of good research practice and conduct, including:

  • Intellectual honesty in proposing, performing and reporting research
  • Accuracy in representing contributions to research proposals and reports
  • Fairness in peer review
  • Collegiality in scientific interactions, including communications and sharing of resources
  • Transparency in conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest
  • Protection of human participants in the conduct of research
  • Humane care of animals in the conduct of research
  • Adherence to the mutual responsibilities between investigators and their research participants

The University has an institutional responsibility to ensure integrity and ethical practice in the conduct of research (see the Code of Practice and Procedure on Academic Integrity in Research). This responsibility devolves to those in departments/ faculties, research centres, and to those leading research. In the case of postgraduate research, responsibility devolves to the supervisor in overseeing the student's research project. In other words, there is an institutional responsibility to ensure integrity and ethical practice in doctoral research as well as a pedagogical responsibility to help develop the new researcher's understanding of appropriate research practices. The Policy on Research Degrees states, for example, that an early duty of supervisors is:

to draw to the student's attention the need to consider any ethical issues which may arise during the course and any requirements for ethical approval. (paragraph 4.4.3)

Attention to academic integrity and ethical issues remains the supervisor's ongoing responsibility, of course. Supervisors should revisit these questions often, reinforcing ethical practice as central to all research work. This Research Integrity Checklist has been developed by University Research Services for supervisors and students to use. It draws attention and provides links to relevant policies and processes, providing a reminder to supervisors and students of all the aspects of research which must be borne in mind, encouraging them to keep under consideration how to conduct the research project responsibly and with integrity.

A useful resource for students is Essential Information for Students which includes policy on matters such as plagiarism, academic integrity in research, intellectual property.

The Education Committee's Plagiarism webpages offer a great deal of helpful guidance, from definitions and examples to advice on how to avoid plagiarism and analogous breaches of academic integrity, and details of penalties which can be imposed if such an offence is committed.

Without often thinking about it, academics frequently assert the importance of honesty in advancing their scholarly interests:

The most significant individual(s) to my academic progress this week was a senior colleague in my research group because he was honest in telling me that my idea for my research bid was not appropriate. He also gave me advice on what [such a bid] should be about. (A new lecturer)
I rely a lot on my PhD supervisor, I have a lot of respect for him; he is very seasoned and just very honest. So I sent my application materials to him and, you know, he was very critical saying that it shows that your vision isn't cemented or guided but that is okay, it is not necessarily a bad thing. (A DPhil student).

The same focus on integrity is of course equally important in relation to other research practices. Thus, it is essential that students do not perceive ethical practice as purely about gaining ethical clearance, seeing it instead as impacting day-to-day practices as well as interactions.

The remainder of this section is divided in two: the first laying out some key ethical issues, the second noting useful resources.

Issues

Differentiating misconduct and misbehaviour

It turns out that this [issue in my discipline] has very strong parallels with debates in ethics about whether there are moral truths. If I never talked to any ethicists, I would never know that there was this actually vast literature full of people addressing themselves to... parallel... ethical... problems.

This supervisor comment highlights the fact that there are scholars whose field of inquiry is ethical issues, including issues relating to the conduct of research. A useful distinction they make is between misconduct and misbehaviour. Misconduct (e.g. plagiarism, falsification, fabrication) may be actionable legally whereas misbehaviour relates to the day-to-day practices of research (e.g. dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they are inaccurate, inadequate record keeping related to research projects, inappropriate attribution of authorship credit on research papers). In some ways, misbehaviour (also referred to as 'questionable research practices') is a moving target given researchers are often engaged in cutting-edge research and dealing with the unexpected in making decisions and interacting with co-researchers, collaborators and DPhil students. In other words, key to the integrity and ethical conduct of research is attention to the day-to-day practices in the lab, the field, or any context in which researchers engage in inquiry.

Balancing supervisor and student projects

Ethical issues can emerge in the supervisory relationship. In the following excerpt, an Oxford supervisor describes his efforts to act with integrity in response to the tension he faced between his research project and a student he was supervising.

I feel under quite a lot of pressure to address the research goals ...related to the ...grants I've got ...I can't ...say, "Well, I haven't really done anything because the student wasn't interested." ...The thing I did ...was ...forced the supervision system to sit down and address the issue... the three of us needed to have that conversation, and I think it's helped ...the student has relaxed to the point where they're able to do some work ...On a slightly longer-term basis. ...I'm not convinced that the problem is solved, but ...if you've got any academic integrity at all, I think you have to understand that you have a duty of care for students ...you've taken on the supervision of and the direction of somebody's education.

Dealing with informant disclosure

Like the example of the tension between research and supervision, issues that arise in the day-to-day practice of research are hard to predict or plan for, as the student in the next excerpt describes.

I was really amazed at some people ...sort of the confidences they gave to me! Nothing really about [my study] ...saying things I'm sure they wouldn't want to be published! And obviously, I'm not going to include those types of things but I did find that really interesting. What are the boundaries? Like, they might tell you something really juicy and it's like "oh, that's really interesting" and that would sort of give some interesting light on this particular person's [experiences] ...But then...it's too sensitive, really, to put in!

Managing fieldwork

Like many others, the student speaking in the next excerpt had minimal experience in the conduct of research. If supervisors do not have the requisite research experience or have not explored with students beforehand the actual day-to-day experience of ethical practice, students may be left on their own to deal with such issues.

Neither of my supervisors has ever really done ethnographic research so some ...things to do with ethics and ...the experience of being in the field and boundaries, I don't think they...pointed that out to me so I sort of found that out myself through the actual experience and, obviously, reading things I'd read before and talking to other people who had done ethnographic field work.

Resources

Online courses

Research integrity courses are available on WebLearn. You will need Oxford Single Sign On to access these courses, which include different versions for Biomedical Sciences, Engineering and Technology, Natural and Physical Sciences, Arts and Humanities, and Social and Behavioural Sciences.

A range of online educational and training resources is available from the US Office of Research Integrity.

UK frameworks and policies

In line with growning national and international experience in identifying and promoting good research conduct and in addressing unsatisfactory conduct, frameworks and policies have been developed to sustain and enhance integrity in UK research.

Universities UK (2012) Concordat to support research integrity

Research Councils UK (2013) Policy and guidelines on governance of good research conduct

International variation

International students may come with different views of the ethical practices of research given such practices emerge out of broader cultural ethical views. Further, different countries will have distinct policies and guidelines as well as procedures for oversight of research practices. Thus, particular diligence is needed in ensuring that international students understand UK policies and disciplinary practices related to the ethical conduct of research. Good strategies include:

  • Ensuring that all students are given a set of textual and online resources related to the ethical conduct of research. Previous research suggests that international students draw more often on such resources than personal collegial interactions.
  • Introducing students to the Singapore statement on research integrity (2010). Not only does it define some global principles, but the website enables visitors to translate the statement from English into a range of different languages which could facilitate students' understanding of the nuances of the statement.

Case studies of ethical practice from a disciplinary perspective

Examining and discussing cases in research and lab meetings or informal seminars can provide a way of exploring the kinds of decisions that students may have to take. This is essential since, while research ethics can be understood as a series of principles that guide action, how these principles might be applied in practice is context and discipline-specific, related to the methodological and epistemological approaches being used in the research.

  • Cases may be drawn from local research experience, e.g. discussing why specific decisions about authorship have been made.
  • This useful online resource of case studies provides case examples in anthropology, archaeology, biotechnology, business, economic botany, education, engineering, history, psychobiology, and sociology among others.
  • In any discussion of case studies, it can be fruitful to ask students to consider how other countries' guidelines and practices might lead to different decisions. Not only does this aid international students, but such a strategy can be particularly useful for students who will be travelling abroad for field work since they may find individuals there hold different views of ethical practice than the ones they need to sustain.

Guidelines on co-authorship and handling disputes

Helpful documentation which clarifies the relevant issues includes:

Recent research suggests that research misbehaviours - or 'questionable research practices' - are more prevalent and potentially of greater concern than blatant research misconduct (which, although it might be legally actionable, tends to occur less frequently). This concern may emerge from the frequency with which researchers report having engaged in misbehaviours. For instance, in a US survey of post-docs and mid-career academics funded by the National Institutes of Health (Martinson et al, 2005), 33% reported having engaged in at least one of these misbehaviours in the previous three years:

  • failing to present data that contradicts one's own previous research;
  • circumventing certain minor aspects of human-subject requirements;
  • overlooking others' use of flawed data or questionable interpretation of data;
  • changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source;
  • inappropriately assigning authorship credit;
  • withholding details of methodology or results in papers and proposals;
  • using inadequate or inappropriate research designs;
  • dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate;
  • inadequate record keeping related to research projects.

As a result of evidence such as this, it has been argued that discussion of misbehaviours cannot be left to ethicists or organizational policies and workshops, especially since ethical practices are moving targets, given the difficulties of working on the frontiers of knowledge and creating new ways of doing things (de Vries et al, 2006). Thus, such conversations need to move into the lab, research group, and into discussions with research students. Only in this way can researchers make explicit the blind-spot created by a focus on ethicists' views and institutional policies related to the ethical conduct of research. Such an approach seems particularly necessary given what doctoral students report about their knowledge of ethical practices.

For instance, a survey of doctoral students examined the ethical underpinnings of the conduct of research (Golde & Dore, 2001). Students reported both their degree of clarity about the issues as well as the primary source of information they drew on for advice. Rather disturbingly students demonstrated a lack of clear understanding on many of the issues. And, importantly, the supervisor was most often their primary source of information:

Issue % who claimed "very clear understanding" most common primary source (%)
using copyrighted material 55.1 written policy (36.1)
generating and using research data 47.4 supervisor (51.2)
resource care (e.g. animals) 41.9 written policy (43.3)
determining and ordering authorship 26.2 supervisor (56.2)
appropriate use of research funds 25.8 supervisor (52.7)
refereeing academic papers fairly 22.0 supervisor (54.5)
when and how to publish papers 20.3 supervisor (63.3)
avoiding conflicts of interest 12.0 supervisor (33.8)
patent policies 9.6 written policy (37.4)

 

A more recent study of doctoral students in neuroscience (Holley, 2009) addressed research practices. In this field, the 'sacrifice' of insects and animals of different kinds is necessary to research. Over the course of their programmes, these research practices emerged as a source of emotional, personal and professional conflict for students.

Students were challenged on an ongoing basis to reconcile tensions between communal practices and individual beliefs. That is, they knew that if they did not sacrifice the animals then someone else would have to do it for them and they would not be fulfilling their communal responsibility. Some students reconciled themselves by balancing intellectual curiosity with the task and others by focusing on the value that would result from their research. Others were not able to do this and a) shifted labs to animals or insects they felt they could sacrifice; b) sought labs where animals were not used; or c) abandoned the study as they realized that they couldn't reconcile themselves.

Holley (2009) noted that orientation documents for students did not deal with the ethical implications of the research and that there were few spaces in which students felt comfortable raising the issue, including the labs in which they worked.

Another study in the social sciences demonstrated that individuals distinguished between paper ethics, ethical standards in their related disciplinary professions, and their own personal commitments to respectful research practices. The differences that sometimes existed among these created tensions as to what constitutes ethical behaviour (McGinn & Bosacki, 2004).

The above text is based on:

de Vries, R., Anderson, M., & Martinson, B. (2006). Normal misbehaviour: Scientists talk about the ethics of research.Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(1), 43-50.

Golde, C., & Dore, T. (2001). At cross purposes: what the experiences of today's doctoral students reveal about doctoral education. A report prepared for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Philadephia.

Holley, K. (2009). Animal research practices and doctoral student identity development in a scientific community.Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 577-591.

Martinson, B., Anderson, M., & de Vries, R. (2005). Scientists behaving badly. Nature, 453(9), 737-738.

McGinn, M.K. & Bosacki, S.L. (2004) Research Ethics and Practitioners: Concerns and strategies for novice researchers engaged in graduate education. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(2), Article 6.

Statistics on Oxford graduate student's discussing ethical issues with their supervisors come from responses to Student Engagement surveys piloted at Oxford in Hilary Term 2013. For more information about the surveys, contact Dr Gosia Turner.