Foundations of integrity in academic research

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Problems of scientific freedom and responsibility are not new; one need only consider, as examples, the passionate controversies that were stirred by the work of Galileo and Darwin. In our time, however, such problems have changed in character, and have become far more numerous, more urgent and more complex. Science and its applications have become entwined with the whole fabric of our lives and thoughts. . . .Scientific freedom, like academic freedom, is an acquired right, generally accepted by society as necessary for the advancement of knowledge from which society may benefit. Scientists possess no rights beyond those of other citizens except those necessary to fulfill the responsibility arising from their special knowledge, and from the insight arising from that knowledge.

—John Edsall (1975)

Synopsis: The integrity of research is based on adherence to core values—objectivity, honesty, openness, fairness, accountability, and stewardship. These core values help to ensure that the research enterprise advances knowledge. Integrity in science means planning, proposing, performing, reporting, and reviewing research in accordance with these values. Participants in the research enterprise stray from the norms and appropriate practices of science when they commit research misconduct or other misconduct or engage in detrimental research practices.

Transmitting values and norms in research

The core values and guiding norms of science have been studied and written about extensively, with the work of Robert Merton providing a foundation for subsequent work on the sociology of science (Merton, 1973). Merton posited a set of norms that govern good science: (1) Communalism (common ownership of scientific knowledge), (2) Universalism (all scientists can contribute to the advance of knowledge), (3) Disinterestedness (scientists should work for the good of the scientific enterprise as opposed to personal gain), and (4) Organized Skepticism (results should be examined critically before they are accepted). Research on scientists and scientific organizations has also led to a better understanding of counter norms that appear to conflict with the dominant Mertonian norms but that are recognized as playing an inherent part in the actual practice of science, such as the personal commitment that a scientist may have to a particular hypothesis or theory (Mitroff, 1974).

More recent work on the effectiveness of responsible conduct of research education, covered in more detail in Chapter 9, explores evidence that at least some scientists may not understand and reflect upon the ethical dimensions of their work (McCormick et al., 2012). Several causes are identified, including a lack of awareness on the part of researchers of the ethical issues that can arise, confidence that they can identify and address these issues without any special training or help, or apprehension that a focus on ethical issues might hinder their progress. An additional challenge arises from the apparent gap “between the normative ideals of science and science’s institutional reward system” (Devereaux, 2014). Chapter 6 covers this issue in more detail. Here, it is important to note that identifying and understanding the values and norms of science do not automatically mean that they will be followed in practice. The context in which values and norms are communicated and transmitted in the professional development of scientists is critically important.

Scientists are privileged to have careers in which they explore the frontiers of knowledge. They have greater autonomy than do many other professionals and are usually respected by other members of society. They often are able to choose the questions they want to pursue and the methods used to derive answers. They have rich networks of social relationships that, for the most part, reinforce and further their work. Whether actively involved in research or employed in some other capacity within the research enterprise, scientists are able to engage in an activity about which they are passionate: learning more about the world and how it functions.

In the United States, scientific research in academia emerged during the late 19th century as an “informal, intimate, and paternalistic endeavor” (NAS-NAE-IOM, 1992). Multipurpose universities emphasized teaching, and research was more of an avocation than a profession. Even today, being a scientist and engaging in research does not necessarily entail a career with characteristics traditionally associated with professions such as law, medicine, architecture, some subfields of engineering, and accounting. For example, working as a researcher does not involve state certification of the practitioner’s expertise as a requirement to practice, nor does it generally involve direct relationships with fee-paying clients. Many professions also maintain an explicit expectation that practitioners will adhere to a distinctive ethical code (Wickenden, 1949). In contrast, scientists do not have a formal, overarching code of ethics and professional conduct.

However, the nature of professional practice even in the traditional professions continues to evolve (Evetts, 2013). Some scholars assert that the concept of professional work should include all occupations characterized by “expert knowledge, autonomy, a normative orientation grounded in community, and high status, income, and other rewards” (Gorman and Sandefur, 2011). Scientific research certainly shares these characteristics. In this respect, efforts to formalize responsible conduct of research training in the education of researchers often have assumed that this training should be part of the professional development of researchers (IOM-NRC, 2002; NAS-NAE-IOM, 1992). However, the training of researchers (and research itself) has retained some “informal, intimate, and paternalistic” features. Attempts to formalize professional development training sometimes have generated resistance in favor of essentially an apprenticeship model with informal, ad hoc approaches to how graduate students and postdoctoral fellows learn how to become professional scientists.

One challenge facing the research enterprise is that informal, ad hoc approaches to scientific professionalism do not ensure that the core values and guiding norms of science are adequately inculcated and sustained. This has become increasingly clear as the changes in the research environment described in Chapter 3 have emerged and taken hold. Indeed, the apparent inadequacy of these older forms of training to the task of socializing and training individuals into responsible research practices is a recurring theme of this report.

Individual scientists work within a much broader system that profoundly influences the integrity of research results. This system, described briefly in Chapter 1, is characterized by a massive, interconnected web of relationships among researchers, employing institutions, public and private funders, and journals and professional societies. This web comprises unidirectional and bidirectional obligations and responsibilities between the parts of the system. The system is driven by public and private investments and results in various outcomes or products, including research results, various uses of those results, and trained students. However, the system itself has a dynamic that shapes the actions of everyone involved and produces results that reflect the functioning of the system. Because of the large number of relationships between the many players in the web of responsibility, features of one set of relationships may affect other parts of the web. These interdependencies complicate the task of devising interventions and structures that support and encourage the responsible conduct of research.

Source: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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