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The ethical petri-dish: recommendations for the design of university science curricula0

 

Dr Jo-Anne Kelder, Senior Lecturer, Curriculum Innovation and Development, University of Tasmania, https://www.linkedin.com/in/jokelder/
Professor Sue Jones, Honorary Researcher, School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania,
Professor Liz Johnson, DVC of Education, Deakin University, https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabeth-johnson-24292773/
Associate Professor Tina Acuna, ADL&T College of Sciences and Engineering, University of Tasmania, https://www.linkedin.com/in/tina-acuna-25a35965/

Ethics (thinking and practice) is intrinsic to the nature of science. Ethical practices within science-related professions are mandated by policies, frameworks, standards and cultural norms. A scientist should also consider the broader implications for society when applying scientific knowledge..

...
.Does our laboratory start working to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 or continue working on that potential cure for childhood leukemia? What will happen to the endangered Giant Freshwater Lobster if we remodel the hydrology of that major river so farmers in North-West Tasmania can grow more potatoes? Should we approve the use of GM technology to develop Vitamin A-rich rice?.
...

Science graduates must be equipped to contribute to such complex debates, and empowered to make scientific decisions within a sound ethical framework (Johnson, 2010).

The Science Standards Statement (Jones, Yates and Kelder, 2011), the national benchmark for bachelor-level science degrees in Australia, specifies that graduates will demonstrate a coherent understanding of science, and be able to explain the role and relevance of science in society. society (TLO 1: Jones et al., 2011: p.12). Furthermore, they will be equipped to understand and work within ethical frameworks, and “have some understanding of their social and cultural responsibilities as they investigate the natural world.” (TLO 5.3: Jones et al., 2011: p.15).

The argument that there is ‘no space’ for ethics in the science curriculum is no longer valid (Booth and Garrett, 2004; McGowan 2013). However there remain significant barriers to the teaching and assessment of ethical knowledge, skills and capabilities in undergraduate science curricula. We summarise these as: debate and dissent around what should be taught, who should teach ethical thinking, and how should it be taught and assessed.

It’s not just about plagiarism

Ethics in science falls into two broad categories:

  1. Ethics in the practice of science
  2. Ethics in the application of science.

Ethics in the practice of science relates to integrity in research management (including data collection, analysis and presentation); plagiarism, and authorship. Ethics curricula must ensure students’ familiarity with relevant legislative frameworks such as the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. In professionally oriented/applied disciplines such as Agriculture and Environmental Science students must also be prepared for working ethically in a business environment and to understand their ethical and legal obligations as workplace leaders (Botwright-Acuna and Able, 2016).

Ethics in the application of science requires a broader and deeper perspective: appreciating and accepting responsibility for the impacts of scientific work upon society (Evers, 2001; Schultz, 2014). Graduates need to be aware that the ethical frameworks within which science is practised are not static, but adapt as social norms change. They must understand how their personal ethical perspectives interact with and may clash with, formal mandated frameworks, and be prepared to engage in debate around the ethical implications of applying discovery science in the real world. They must be prepared to defend ethical decisions and to appreciate that others may hold conflicting views. As Evers puts it: “the study of ethics should therefore be an integral part of the education and training of all scientists with the purpose of increasing future scientists’ ethical competence” (2001: p. 97).

Recommendation – that students are encouraged to debate, discuss, and appreciate that people will hold different points of view on, ethical questions.

Teachers may need some training

Practising scientists who themselves operate within relevant ethical frameworks are best placed to guide students about ethics in the practice of science (Kabasenche, 2014). However, while some scientists have taken up the teaching challenge of including ethics explicitly in their curriculum, this is not yet mainstream (Booth and Garrett, 2004). Most science academics are not themselves formally trained in ethical thinking (Johansen and Harris, 2000) and may express legitimate concern that they are not best placed to design and teach curricula on ethics (van Leeuwen, Lamberts, Newitt and Errington, 2007).

Recommendation – that science faculties provide professional development and community of practice opportunities to teaching staff to ensure that they have the confidence, skills and knowledge to teach ethical practice within a science curriculum.

There is a strong argument for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, with both science academics and philosophically trained ethicists involved in teaching ‘science ethics’ (Kabasenche, 2014). The scientist contributes expertise in the relevant science and their understanding of the ethical practice of science, while the philosopher brings critical thinking skills and decision-making tools that support ethical understandings and analysis of relative consequences. For example, in The Responsible Scientist, Forge (2008) argues that responsibility in scientific work has implications beyond intended outcomes, and includes taking into account foreseen and foreseeable outcomes.

Recommendation – that science faculties pursue opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary design and delivery of ‘science ethics’ across the undergraduate science curriculum.

It’s not just for the first year students

Teaching ethics to science students must do more than ensuring that first years are familiar with university policies on plagiarism and academic integrity (Botwright-Acuna et al., 2016). Ethics must be an explicitly assessed component of the curriculum at each level of study, and overtly aligned to the core science curriculum. Assessment tasks must distinguish between students’ knowledge of relevant ethical frameworks, and their ability to apply those frameworks in practice.

For example, an assessment task for third level Zoology students models an Animal Ethics application: students construct a scientific research question within an ethical framework, and justify that research in language accessible to lay people (Jones and Edwards, 2013). In the undergraduate course ‘Communities of Practice in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’, students develop research skills alongside their capacity for ethical analysis of the impacts of science on society (Keiler et al., 2017) while in a subject on ‘Energy and Sustainability’, students develop a national energy plan that addresses equity issues as well as technical and political feasibility (McGowan, 2013). Schultz (2014) suggests several strategies for assessing Chemistry students’ knowledge of ethical thinking, such as writing a Code of Conduct for practising chemists.

Recommendation – that ethics is a compulsory and explicitly assessed component of a bachelor-level science curriculum, and that students are exposed to ethical thinking in the context of science from their first year onwards.

It’s everybody’s business

Good practice is a teaching team approach to curriculum design, delivery and scholarly evaluation (Kelder et al., 2017; TEQSA, 2018). A whole-of-curriculum approach will involve team members meeting regularly to discuss and coordinate connecting the ethical implications of scientific knowledge and practice being taught; to ensure that ethical thinking is embedded at each curriculum level; to scaffold and develop learning from introductory to assured level. At the broader level, the science curriculum must provide a framework within which students are supported to develop personal and professional responsibility for their learning and later professional life (Loughlin, 2013).

Recommendation – that the degree curriculum is discussed and agreed upon by the whole teaching team prior to curriculum design (and ongoing, as it matures) to ensure that students’ learning is built upon, and assessed coherently and developmentally.

Recommendation – that scholarship promoting and recommending content and delivery methods, and, especially, effective assessment strategies for the teaching of ethics to science undergraduates, is encouraged and rewarded.

References

Booth, J. M. and Garrett, J. M. (2004). Instructors’ practices in and attitudes toward teaching ethics in the genetics classroom. Genetics, 168(3), 1111-1117.

Botwright Acuña, T.L. and Able, A.J. (Eds.). (2016). Good Practice Guide: Threshold Learning Outcomes for Agriculture. Sydney, Australia: Office for Learning and Teaching. https://ltr.edu.au/resources/ID13_2982_Acuna_Guide_2016.pdf

Evers, K. (2001). Standards for ethics and responsibility in science: An analysis and evaluation of their content, background and function. International Council for Science, Paris.

Forge, J. (2008). The Responsible Scientist: A Philosophical Inquiry. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Johnson, J (2010). Teaching Ethics to Science Students: Challenges and a Strategy. In: Education and Ethics in the Life Sciences, Rappert, B. (ed.) ANU E Press, 197–213.

Jones, S. M. and A. Edwards (2013). Placing ethics within the formal science curriculum: a case study. In: Frielick, S. et al. (Eds.) Research and Development in Higher Education: the place of learning and teaching, 36 (pp 243-252). Auckland, New Zealand, 1-4 July 2013. http://herdsa.org.au/publications/conference-proceedings/research-and-development-higher-education-place-learning-and-21

Jones, S. M., Yates, B. F. and Kelder, J.-A. (2011). Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project: Science Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Statement. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. http://www.acds-tlcc.edu.au/science-threshold-learning-outcomes-tlos/science-tlos/

Kabasenche W. P. (2014). The Ethics of Teaching Science and Ethics: A Collaborative Proposal. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 15(2), 135–138. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v15i2.841

Kelder, J.-A., Carr, A. R. and Walls, J. (2017). Evidence-based Transformation of Curriculum: a Research and Evaluation Framework. Paper presented at the 40th Annual Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), Sydney.

Keiler, K. C., Jackson, K. L., Jaworski, L., Lopatto, D. and Ades, S. E. (2017). Teaching broader impacts of science with undergraduate research. PLoS biology, 15(3), e2001318.

Loughlin, W. (2013). Good Practice Guide (Science) Threshold Learning Outcome 5: Personal and professional responsibility. http://www.acds-tlcc.edu.au/science-threshold-learning-outcomes-tlos/science-threshold-learning-outcomes-tlosscience-tlo-good-practice-guides/

McGowan, A. H. (2013). Teaching Science and Ethics to Undergraduates: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19, 535–543.

National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/publications/national-statement-ethical-conduct-human-research-2007-updated-2018

TEQSA (12 December 2018). “Guidance Note – Scholarship” Version 2.5. https://www.teqsa.gov.au/latest-news/publications/guidance-note-scholarship

van Leeuwen, B., Lamberts, R., Newitt, P. and Errington, S. (2012, October). Ethics, issues and consequences: conceptual challenges in science education. In Proceedings of The Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education.

This post may be cited as:

Kelder, J., Jones, S., Johnson, E & Botwright-Acuna, T. (18 June 2020) The ethical petri-dish: recommendations for the design of university science curricula Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/the-ethical-petri-dish-recommendations-for-the-design-of-university-science-curricula

Griffith University’s implementation of the Australian Code (2018)0

 

Dr Amanda Fernie, Manager Research Ethics & Integrity, Griffith University Dr Gary Allen, Senior Policy Officer, Griffith University

AUSTRALIAN CODE (2007)

At Griffith University, the implementation, operation, investigations and related professional development of/for the 2007 edition of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research is the responsibility of the Research Ethics & Integrity team in the Office for Research.

The Griffith University Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research was the University’s policy implementation of the Australian Code (2007) and it was supplemented by the Research Integrity Resource Sheet (RIRS) series. The Griffith University Code was largely a direct repeat of the Australian Code into Griffith University policy. The RIRS is a series of short (most are four pages) guidance documents that provide practical tips related to the University’s implementation of Part A and Part B of Australian Code (2007).

IMPLEMENTING THE AUSTRALIAN CODE (2018)

This is the first post in the series about institutions implementing the Australian Code (2018). We’d love to hear about your instution’s progress and story. Email us at IntegrityStory@ahrecs.com to discuss logistics.

At the outset, Griffith University decided to give its Research Integrity Adviser (RIA) network a more collegiate advisory role, and while RIAs were made available to advise complainants and respondents, or parties in a dispute, their primary role was providing advice and suggestions.
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Professional development workshops on research integrity for new HDR candidates were conducted a few times a year (as part of the orientation) and were co-facilitated by the Office for Research and the Griffith Graduate Research School. Workshops on research integrity were also conducted for new HDR Supervisors as part of their accreditation. Since 2007, professional development workshops in Schools, Departments, Research Centres, Administrative units and Groups have been co-facilitated by the relevant RIA and a member of the Research Ethics & Integrity team.
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APPROACH TO THE AUSTRALIAN CODE (2018)

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Griffith University aims to have fully implemented the Australian Code (2018) by the end of March 2019. Griffith’s Research Committee has recommended to the Academic Committee that the redundant detail of the Griffith University Code be replaced by the Griffith University Responsible Conduct of Research policy. This policy articulates the University’s implementation of the principles and responsibilities of the Australian Code (2018), the role of the University’s collegiate RIAs, and the existence and role of the resource material that will be produced by the Office for Research.
Our Office for Research is currently liaising with the relevant parts of the University to determine who has control of:

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Level 1 – Documents that refer to or link to the Australian Code, where a simple change to the reference/URL is required. Example: HDR candidate supervision policy.
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Level 2 – Documents that derive authority from the Australian Code, where it will need to be determined if the Australian Code (2018) still directly provides that authority or if any changes are required. Example: Publication ethics standards.
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Level 3 – Documents that copy, refer to or use a component of the Australian Code (2007), where it will need to be determined if the Australian Code (2018) still provides that component or if it needs to be replaced by institutional guidance.
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The above work is underway and progressing well.
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In the event new institutional guidance is required, it will be included in the updated RIRS series.
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UPDATED RESEARCH INTEGRITY RESOURCE SHEETS

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The following resource sheets are being produced:
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  1. Introduction to research integrity at Griffith University
  2. Moving to the 2018 version of the Australian Code
  3. Planning and conducting a project responsibly
  4. Responsible research outputs
  5. Responsible data management
  6. Collaborative research: Hints and tips
  7. The responsible supervisor
  8. The responsible candidate
  9. Conflicts of interest
  10. Tips for peer review
  11. Disputes between researchers
  12. Investigations of alleged breaches of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research
  13. Alleged breaches: Tips for complainants
  14. Alleged breaches: Tips for respondents
  15. Research Misconduct

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Initially any ‘new’ guidance material will use text from Part A of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007), but the intention is to refine the material based on (sub)discipline and methodological feedback from the University’s research community, drawing from useful ideas from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and the UK Research Integrity Office.
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As new good practice guides are released the relevant RIRS will be reviewed and updated as required.
Griffith University is taking a ‘learning institution’ approach to this material, where it is refined and improved over time based on user feedback and suggestions, institutional and (inter)national experience/events and changes in needs.
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COMMUNICATION PLAN

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The Office for Research is currently finalising a communication plan, in addition to regular updates to Research Committee, the RIA network and the areas of the University identified for the consultation above. This will include briefings for the Group Research Committees.
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AWARENESS AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN
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Early in 2019, the Office for Research and RIAs will commence professional development activities to raise awareness and understanding of the national and international changes.
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Amanda is happy to be contacted with any questions or suggestions about this work.
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Contributors
Amanda Fernie, Griffith University | a.fernie@griffith.edu.au & Gary Allen, Griffith University

This post may be cited as:
Fernie, A. & Allen, G. (26  November 2018) Griffith University’s implementation of the Australian Code (2018). Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/griffith-universitys-implementation-of-the-australian-code-2018
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We invite debate on issues raised by items we publish. However, we will only publish debate about the issues that the items raise and expect that all contributors model ethical and respectful practice.

 

Australian Code 2018: What institutions should do next1

 

Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson

At first glance, there is much to be pleased about the new version of the Australian Code that was released on 14th June. A short, clear document that is based upon principles and an overt focus on research culture is a positive move away from the tight rules that threatened researchers and research offices alike for deviation from standards that might not be appropriate or even workable in all contexts.

The 2007 Code was rightly criticized on several grounds. First, weighing a system down with detailed rules burdened the vast majority with unneeded compliance for the recklessness and shady intentions of a very small minority. Second, there was reason to suspect the detailed rules did not stop the ‘bad apples’. Third, those detailed rules probably did not inspire early career researchers to engage with research integrity and embrace and embed better practice into their research activity. Finally, the Code did little to create an overall system able to undertake continuous improvement.

But, before we start to celebrate any improvements, we need to work through what has changed and what institutions and researchers need to do about it. And, then, maybe a quiet celebration might be in order.

Researchers have some fairly basic needs when it comes to research integrity. They need to know what they should do: first, as researchers and research supervisors in order to engage in good practice; second, if they encounter poor practice by another researcher; and, third, if other people complain about their practices.

The 2007 Australian Code offered some help with each of these. In some cases, this ‘help’ was structured as a requirement and over time was found wanting. The 2018 version appreciated that these questions might be basic but that the answers were often complex. The second and third questions are partly answered by the accompanying Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide) and we’ll return to this. The answer to the first question is brief.

The Code begins to address responsibilities around research integrity through a set of eight principles that apply to researchers as well as their institutions: honesty; rigour; transparency; fairness; respect; recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples to be engaged in research; accountability, and promotion of responsible research practices. Explicit recognition of the need to respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did not appear in the 2007 version. There are 13 responsibilities specific to institutions. There are 16 responsibilities, specific to researchers, that relate to compliance with legal and ethical responsibilities, require researchers to ensure that they support a responsible culture of research, undertake appropriate training, provide mentoring, use appropriate methodology and reach conclusions that are justified by the results, retain records, disseminate findings, disclose and manage of conflicts of interest, acknowledge research contributions appropriately, participate in peer review and report breaches of research integrity.

In only a few cases might a researcher read these parts of the Code and conclude that the requirements are inappropriate. It would be a little like disagreeing with the Singapore Statement (the one on research integrity, not the recent Trump-Kim output). Mostly, the use of words like ‘appropriate’ within the Code (it appears three times in the Principles, twice in the responsibilities of institutions and five times in responsibilities of researchers) limit the potential for particular responsibilities to be over-generalised from one discipline and inappropriately transferred to others.

There are some exceptions, and some researchers may find it difficult to ‘disseminate research findings responsibly, accurately and broadly’, particularly if they are subject to commercial-in-confidence restrictions or public sector limitations, and we know that there are significant pressures on researchers to shape the list of authors in ways that may have little to do with ‘substantial contribution’.

For researchers, the Code becomes problematic if they go to it seeking advice on how they ought to behave in particular contexts. The answers, whether they were good or bad in the 2007 Code, are no longer there. So, a researcher seeking to discover how to identify and manage a conflict of interest or what criteria ought to determine authorship will need to look elsewhere. And, institutions will need to broker access to this information either by developing it themselves or by pointing to good sectoral advice from professional associations, international bodies such as the Committee for Publication Ethics, or the Guides that the NHMRC has indicated that it will publish.

We are told that the Australian Code Better Practice Guides Working Group will produce guides on authorship and data management towards the end of 2018 (so hopefully at least six months before the deadline of 1 July 2019 for institutions to implement the updated Australian Code). However, we do not know which other guides will be produced, who will contribute to their development nor, in the end, how useful they will be in informing researcher practice. We would hope that the Working Group is well progressed with the further suite if it is to be able to collect feedback and respond to that before that deadline.

There are at least eight areas where attention will be required. We need:

  1. A national standard data retention period for research data and materials.
  2. Specified requirements about data storage, security, confidentiality and privacy.
  3. Specified requirements about the supervision and mentoring of research trainees.
  4. A national standard on publication ethics, including such matters as republication of a research output.
  5. National criteria to inform whether a contributor to a research project could or should not be listed as an author of a research output.
  6. Other national standards on authorship matters.
  7. Specified requirements about a conflicts of interest policy.
  8. Prompts for research collaborations between institutions.

For each of those policy areas the following matters should be considered:

1. Do our researchers need more than the principle that appears in the 2018 Australian Code?

2. If yes, is there existing material upon which an institution’s guidance material can be based?

3. Who will write, consider and endorse the guidance material at a national or institutional level?

Many institutions will conclude it is prudent to wait until late 2018 to see whether the next two good practice guides are released and discover how much they cover. Even if they do so, institutions will also need to transform these materials into resources that can be used in teaching and learning at the levels of the discipline and do so in a way that builds the commitment to responsible conduct and the ethical imaginations of researchers rather than testing them on their knowledge of compliance matters.

Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches

The Code is accompanied by a Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide). The main function of this Guide is to provide a model process for managing and investigating complaints or concerns about research conduct. However, before examining how to adopt that model, institutions need to make several important preliminary decisions.

First, to be consistent with the Code, the Guide states that institutions should promote a culture that fosters and values responsible conduct of research generally and develop, disseminate, implement and review institutional practices that promote adherence to the Code. Both of these will necessitate the identification of existing structures and processes and a thorough assessment to determine any changes that are needed to ensure that they fulfil these responsibilities.

This means that institutions must assess how their processes conform to the principles of procedural fairness and the listed characteristics of such processes. The procedural fairness principles are described as:

  • the hearing rule – the opportunity to be heard
  • the rule against bias – decisionmakers have no personal bias in the outcome
  • ‘the evidence rule – that decisions are based on evidence.

The characteristics require that an institution’s processes are: proportional; fair; impartial; timely; transparent, and confidential. A thorough review and, where necessary, revision of current practices will be necessary to show conformity to the Guide.

Second, when planning how to adopt the model, institutions need to consider the legal context as the Guide notes that enterprise bargaining agreements and student disciplinary processes may prevail over the Guide.

Third, the model depends on the identification of six key personnel with distinct functions. Some care needs to be taken to match the designated roles with the appropriate personnel, even if their titles differ from those in the model, in an institution’s research management structure. The six personnel are:

  • a responsible executive officer, who has final responsibility for receiving report and deciding on actions;
  • a designated officer, appointed to receive complaints and oversee their management;
  • an assessment officer or officers, who conduct preliminary assessments of complaints;
  • research integrity advisers, who have knowledge of, and promote adherence to, the Code and offer advice to those with concerns or complaints;
  • research integrity office, staff who are responsible for managing research integrity;
  • review officer, who has responsibility to receive requests for procedural review of an investigation.

Last, institutions must decide whether to use the term ‘research misconduct’ at all and, if so, what meaning to give to it. Some guidance is offered in a recommended definition of the term but, as noted above, this will need to be considered in the legal contexts of EBAs and student disciplinary arrangements.

Conclusion

The update to the Code provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on a range of key matters to promote responsible research. The use of principles and responsibilities and the style of the document offers a great deal of flexibility that permits institutions to develop their own thoughtful arrangements. However, this freedom and flexibility comes with a reciprocal obligation on institutions to establish arrangements that are in the public interest rather than ‘just’ complying with a detailed rule. We have traded inflexibility for uncertainty; what comes next is up to all of us.

Click here to read about the AHRECS Australian Code 2018 services

The Contributors
Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson – senior consultants AHRECS

This post may be cited as:
Allen G., Israel M. and Thomson C. (21 June 2018) Australian Code 2018: What institutions should do next. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/australian-code-2018-what-institutions-should-do-next

We invite debate on issues raised by items we publish. However, we will only publish debate about the issues that the items raise and expect that all contributors model ethical and respectful practice.

Dealing with “normal” misbehavior in science: Is gossip enough?0

Posted by Admin in Research Integrity on September 20, 2017 / Keywords: , , , ,
 

As scientists, whether in the natural or social sciences, we tend to be confident in the self-policing abilities of our disciplines to root out unethical behavior. In many countries, we have institutionalized procedures for dealing with egregious forms of misconduct in the forms of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism (FFP).

But research is increasingly calling attention to more “everyday” forms of misconduct—modes of irresponsible (if not unethical) behavior, pertaining to how we conduct our research as well as our relationships with colleagues. These include, for example:

  • cutting corners and being sloppy in one’s research (which makes future replication difficult)
  • delaying reviews of a colleague’s work in order to beat them to publication
  • exploiting students
  • unfairly claiming authorship credit
  • misusing research funds
  • sabotaging colleagues, and so on.

Such behaviors don’t violate FFP, but nevertheless fall short of the professional standards we aspire to. They begin to shape the implicit norms we internalize about what it takes to become successful in our fields (i.e., the formal script may be that we are to give others their due credit, but “really” we know that winners need to play dirty). Further, such actions can foster experiences of injustice and exploitation that lead some of us to leave our professions altogether. They thus compromise the integrity of scientific research and can create the climate for more serious violations to occur.

Just because such forms of what DeVries, Anderson, and Martinson call “normal misbehavior” can’t be formally sanctioned, it doesn’t mean they go unnoticed. Rather, in the research that my colleagues and I conducted on scientists in several countries, we found such accounts to be commonplace. Why, then, the confidence in the self-policing abilities of our disciplines? The answer, we were surprised to find, was gossip.

Scientists regularly circulate information in their departments and subfields about those who violate scientific norms. Through such gossip, they try to warn one another about colleagues whose work one ought not to trust, as well as those with whom one should avoid working. The hope here is that the bad reputation generated by such gossip will negatively impact perpetrators and serve as a deterrent to others.

What we found, however, was that the same respondents would admit that many scientists in their fields managed to be quite successful in spite of a negative reputation. Some talked about stars in their disciplines who managed to regularly publish in top journals precisely because they cut corners, or managed to be highly prolific because they exploited students. Others feared that influential perpetrators could retaliate against challengers. Some others complained of “mafias” in their disciplines that controlled access to prestigious journals and grants. Still others didn’t want to develop a reputation as a troublemaker for challenging their colleagues.

Perhaps the strangest case we encountered was of a scientist at a highly reputed institution in India who was notorious for beating students with shoes if they made mistakes in the lab. Former students would try to warn incoming students through posters around campus, but this did little to hinder the flow of new students into the lab.

Our findings overall suggest that such gossip works as an effective deterrent only when targets of gossip are of lower status than perpetrators. For instance, gossip among senior scholars about the irresponsible behavior of a postdoc or junior faculty member can inhibit their hiring and promotion. However, the veracity of such gossip is hard to verify, and false rumors can destroy someone’s career. In one case we encountered, a scientist saw a colleague spread false gossip about a potential hire, but was unable to intervene in a timely manner to correct this rumor. Transgressors may also remain unaware of gossip, and thus may not be able to correct their behaviors. In cases where targets are of higher status, gossip seems little more than a means of venting frustration, with little effect on perpetrators. Overall, as a means of social control in the discipline, gossip is rather ineffective.

So why does all this matter?

The very prevalence of such gossip indicates that scientific communities still need to take more steps to improve the integrity of their organizations and fields, beyond simply sanctions for FFP. The content of such gossip should be important to leaders of scientific institutions because it can provide important access to rampant forms of irresponsible behavior that erode the integrity of scientific institutions. Obviously, such gossip can’t simply be taken at face value; investigation is needed to weed out false rumors. Institutions need to develop better channels to report questionable behavior and need to regularly analyze such reports for patterns that warrant attention.

What’s most crucial is that institutional leaders prioritize creating a climate that fosters prevention and transparency, encourages speaking up about such issues, and provides safety from potential retaliation. These are among the best practices for protecting whistleblowers, as identified by the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (WPAC) of the US Department of Labor. In addition to ethics training on issues related to FFP, the ongoing professionalization of scientists needs to include more overt discussion about

  • the implicit norms of success in the field
  • the prevalence and causes of burnout
  • how to productively address some of the more rampant forms of irresponsible behavior (such as the ones I listed earlier in this post), and
  • systemic issues, such as competitive pressures and structural incentives that enable the rationalization of irresponsible behavior

If such measures are implemented, we can significantly improve the ethical climates of our institutions and disciplines; reduce some of the attrition caused by institutional climates that tolerate (and even reward) such “normal misbehavior”; and help prevent the more egregious scandals that shake the public’s trust in science.

References

Martinson, B. C., Anderson, M. S., & De Vries, R. (2005). Scientists behaving badly.  Nature, 435(7043), 737-738.
Chicago

Shinbrot, T. (1999). Exploitation of junior scientists must end. Nature, 399(6736), 521.

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

Vaidyanathan, B., Khalsa, S., & Ecklund, E. H. (2016). Gossip as Social Control: Informal Sanctions on Ethical Violations in Scientific Workplaces. Social Problems, 63(4), 554-572.

Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee (WPAC). (2015). Best Practices for Protecting Whistleblowers and Preventing and Addressing Retaliation. https://www.whistleblowers.gov/wpac/WPAC_BPR_42115.pdf

Contributor
Dr. Brandon Vaidyanathan is Associate Professor of Sociology | The Catholic University of America | CUA Staff pagebrandonv@cua.edu

This post may be cited as:
Vaidyanathan B. (2017, 2o September 2017) Dealing with “normal” misbehavior in science: Is gossip enough? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/dealing-normal-misbehavior-science-gossip-enough

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