How integral is integrity to your research?

Academic career no less challenging than tight rope walking!! https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tightrope_walking.jpg

As researchers, we know first-hand how challenging it can be to build a successful academic career. We also know at least a few famous cases where researchers with ‘brilliant’ careers lost all their credibility, funding and positions when they were proven guilty of research misconduct.

Some of us are fortunate to have mentors who left a strong positive influence on the quality and rigor of our scientific work. These mentors through their own professional journey show us that it is indeed possible to have a brilliant academic career without compromising one’s integrity. Others are probably introduced to the principles of good scientific practice and research integrity through training programs.

But all too many researchers around the world also have stories to tell where their work or intellectual ideas were stolen, data was falsified and projects and experiments were sabotaged by colleagues who aimed to achieve a competitive advantage over them.

One might then wonder if research integrity is just an empty dogma or if it can indeed encourage and enable researchers to work with high ethical standards.

What is research integrity? Can we compromise it unknowingly or is it only breached consciously and intentionally? Do we acquire it through upbringing and education or do we develop it through varied professional experiences? What influences our ability to work with integrity especially in a highly competitive and often hierarchical academic world?

These were some of the questions we tried to answer through our exploratory qualitative research study PRISM (Perspectives on Research Integrity in Science and Medicine), funded by the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences[1].

PRISM was aimed at understanding the experience of researchers working in life sciences and medicine in Swiss universities. We interviewed thirty three researchers across all seniority levels (MD or PhD students to full professors) on research integrity related topics.

Some of you might remember being part of our study and sharing with us your experiences and thoughts. And it’s quite possible that some of you are probably wondering why you did not know about our study or why you did not take part in it.

What are the findings of our study?

I will take you through some of the insights and if you are intrigued, you might want to take a look at the publications from this project. Research integrity is not a topic that we discuss on a regular basis and even in our work life it is often assumed that we do follow rules of integrity but we do not discuss those at length.

First of all, we found it hard to get junior researchers involved in our project. They might have been too occupied with their doctoral work, experiments, and writing manuscripts and found it hard to give 45 minutes to one hour of their time for this interview. Maybe they were not very familiar with research integrity as a topic and had limited personal experience to share. It is also likely that they found it risky to talk about these topics even though confidentiality and anonymity were ensured.

However, those who participated in our study had a lot to tell us.

An interview study is a conversation guided by open-ended questions. Researchers facilitate this conversation and engage the participants in a lively discussion. At the end of the interview, many of our participants told us that they found the interviews a great opportunity to reflect on research integrity. For a number of them including senior researchers, it was the first chance to share some of the experiences in their professional lives that had unsettled them.

Our respondents tried to explain in their own words what ‘research integrity,’ ‘scientific or professional integrity,’ and ‘research or scientific misconduct’ mean to them, as we explain in this paper.

They found it challenging to tease out nuanced differences and connections between these terms. A majority of them argued that when someone carries out fraudulent research, s/he is consciously aware of the fact that his or her actions are compromising research and scientific integrity. On the other hand, one could unknowingly be involved in research misconduct if one is not adequately trained to carry out the research. All researchers agreed that errors are likely while conducting experiments and analyzing the results. They highlighted the importance of meticulous training and supervision as a tool to minimize, detect and rectify errors.

Though some research integrity guidelines differentiate between major and minor misconduct and questionable research practices, participants of our study rarely used these terminologies. There is no universally accepted interpretation or definition of these terms, but various international, national and institutional guidelines give some clarity on this matter.

For example, the guideline ‘Integrity in Scientific Research: Procedures and Principles’ issued by the Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008 states that it is difficult to exactly define misconduct, it could be caused intentionally or out of negligence.

Falsification, Fabrication and Plagiarism (FFP) are sometimes grouped together as major scientific misconduct. Another approach was proposed by John, Lowenstein and Prelec in 2012 as questionable research practices (QRPs) which include activities such as selective reporting of variables, deciding whether to exclude data after looking at the impact of doing so on the results, selectively reporting only those experiments which gave expected results, or reporting an unexpected finding as having been predicted from the start.

It might be interesting for you to study the guidelines on research integrity and good scientific practice issued by your department, professional organization, university or national and international organizations such as Swiss Academy of Arts and Sciences, All European Academies’ (ALLEA) or the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the United States. These will not only inform your understanding of the topic but would also help you in understanding the procedures to follow when you witness or suspect any research misconduct in your work environment.

Research integrity and responsible conduct of research could safeguard a professional ‘fall’

We were curious to find out how one learns about research integrity.

Many believed that they acquired values of honesty and fairness through their childhood experiences and upbringing. A few mentioned the lasting memory of ‘not feeling the joy of victory in sports as a child when that victory was achieved through cheating.’

In their adult lives, the biggest influence was that of some of their mentors who worked with high ethical standards. Some mentioned that negative experiences in research practice in their professional lives inspired them to read more on the topic and to engage in online discussion groups such as ‘retraction watch.’

A small number of our respondents had received formal training in research integrity, but some of them had sought online courses to inform themselves. The general belief was that rather than a theoretical lecture, discussion of case studies is the best way to sensitize researchers about research integrity.

These case studies could be built on publicly known cases of scientific fraud or those prepared by various bodies/organizations working in research integrity such as ORI in the United States, and PRINTEGER-Promoting Integrity as an Integral Dimension of Excellence in Research, a project funded by the European Union under Horizon 2020.

Another great source of case studies is the researchers themselves who could provide their own experiences in an anonymized format towards creating case studies. The advantage of last option is its contextualization in the local reality of researchers and hence its direct relevance to their work.

The most commonly encountered experience was of unjustified authorship assignment on manuscripts.

It involved excluding researchers who deserved to be authors, offering guest authorship to influential researchers in the field to improve chances of being published and manipulating sequence or order of authors which was not always in line with the contribution made by individuals.

We found that researchers rarely discussed authorship on manuscripts within the teams and departments. The discussion on this topic usually began when the manuscript was ready to be submitted. Without prior discussions and agreements, researchers often had limited scope to negotiate authorship assignment, and many felt that they were not given the credit they deserved.

Collaborative projects across departments and between different universities had their own challenges with authorship assignment. Almost all researchers argued that the term ‘significant’ contribution towards manuscript used in authorship guidelines is difficult to assess and quantify in the real world and leads to conflicts within research teams.

Respondents to our study shared several experiences that they attributed as breaches of research integrity.

The stories below are collected through our interviews. These narratives were complex and detailed. We are committed to protecting the confidentiality and anonymity of our study participants so I have carefully reworded them to minimize chances of identifying the individuals. These are written in the format of little cases and vignettes and could feel too simplistic but that is the choice I have to make to ensure the anonymity of respondents.

Selina is a PhD student who was asked to build on the previously published research of one of the members of the department. These original experiments were groundbreaking and led to a publication in a high impact journal. Even though Selina had been meticulously running the experiments, after one year of efforts she was unable to reproduce the results previously achieved. She tried to bring this to the notice of her supervisor who reprimanded her for doubting the work of a colleague.

Manfred is a postdoctoral researcher. He had been supervising two doctoral students for three years and was preparing a manuscript which would be crucial for his academic advancement. He believed that given his contribution to the original idea, experiments, supervision, analysis of data and preparation of the manuscript, he should be the last author. However, the department head informed him that another senior postdoctoral researcher should be the last author. Manfred was shocked: this senior researcher was not involved in these experiments at all. He studied the authorship guidelines of the target journal and made his case in front of the department head. He was told the following: ‘the other researcher is submitting a large grant next year and this publication as last author would increase his chance to succeed significantly. Furthermore, this grant would be great for the department. If you would ‘play along’ this time, you might be given similar consideration in the future.’

Amalia is a PhD coordinator with excellent technical and management skills. Lately she was bothered by the ‘strange’ behavior of one of the doctoral students who had not been able to finish his work in spite of having spent almost five years working in this research group. He had become very secretive; he wouldn’t interact with other colleagues and would always set up his experiments when others were not present. Amalia had asked him several times to share his lab log books, but he would always have some excuse or the other. Amalia followed her suspicion, carefully monitored the activities of this student and found out that he was manipulating the mice in the control group of his experiment to get significant results.

Prof. Meier was surprised to read a paper published by his former team member, especially because the significant part of this manuscript was based on experiments conducted at his department and earlier published by his group. The duplication in this paper was too obvious to ignore, and no credit or acknowledgment was given to the earlier published work. Even though Prof. Meier could have contacted the journal and asked editors to verify this duplicate publication, he decided not to do so. He spoke with the former colleague in question and hoped that verbal confrontation would be sufficient. When asked why he did not approach the journal, he explained that he did not want to ‘damage’ the reputation of a former colleague.

It is quite likely that some of these stories might resonate with your own experience. They might also evoke memories from your own professional life where you felt uneasy and unsettled by something you were asked to do, or you had to do.

A large majority of our respondents believed in their responsibility to raise concerns about scientific misconduct in their work environment.

However, they also shared with us the constraints that could deter them from taking that step. These included power dynamics and hierarchical work culture, fear of retaliation by colleagues and eventually damaging one’s work relationships within the department, prior negative experience of having raised concerns and perceived difficulty in proving suspicions of misconduct.

These factors are complex and hence we need a multifaceted strategy to empower researchers to raise concerns about scientific misconduct in their work environment.

The first step could be preparing and disseminating clear guidance on regulations and procedures that one must follow when one suspects research misconduct. On 3rd May 2018, University of Basel released an updated regulation relating to academic integrity. The fact that these are not mere guidelines but a regulation shows that the University of Basel takes research integrity extremely seriously. Hopefully everyone working in science will come to realize sooner rather than later the importance of making integrity integral to all research.

[1] PRISM was funded through Käthe-Zingg-Schwichtenberg-Fonds of the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences awarded to Dr. David Shaw.

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