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10 July, 2018 10:40:09 AM

Integrity in research

The research system could not operate without these shared values that shape the behaviours of all who are involved with the system
Mohammed Abul Kalam PhD
Integrity in research

Practicing integrity in research means planning, proposing, performing, reporting, and reviewing research in accordance with the values. These values should be upheld by research institutions, research sponsors, journals, and learned societies as well as by individual researchers and research groups. General norms and specific research practices that conform to these values have developed over time. Sometimes norms and practices need to be updated as technologies and the institutions that compose the research enterprise evolve. There are also disciplinary differences in some specific research practices, but norms and appropriate practices generally apply across science and engineering research fields. The best practices in research are those actions undertaken by individuals and organizations that are based on the core values of science and enable good research. They should be embraced, practiced, and promoted.
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.

However, the nature of professional practice even in the traditional professions continues to evolve. 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. 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. 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.

The core values of research: The integrity of research is based on the foundational core values of science. The research system could not operate without these shared values that shape the behaviors of all who are involved with the system. Out of these values arise the web of responsibilities that make the system cohere and make scientific knowledge reliable. Many previous guides to responsible conduct in research have identified and described these values.  This report emphasizes six values that are most influential in shaping the norms that constitute research practices and relationships and the integrity of science: (1) Objectivity (2) Honesty (3) Openness (4) Accountability (5) Fairness; and (6) Stewardship.

This write-up examines each of these six values in turn to consider how they shape, and are realized in, research practices. The first of the six values discussed in this write-up—objectivity—describes the attitude of impartiality with which researchers should strive to approach their work. The next four values—honesty, openness, accountability, and fairness—describe relationships among those involved in the research enterprise. The final value—stewardship—involves the relationship between members of the research enterprise, the enterprise as a whole, and the broader society within which the enterprise is situated. Although I discuss stewardship last, it is an essential value that perpetuates the other values.

Objectivity: The hallmark of scientific thinking that differentiates it from other modes of human inquiry and expression such as literature and art is its dedication to rational and empirical inquiry. In this context, objectivity is central to the scientific worldview. The scientific objectivity as consisting of the freedom and responsibility of the researcher to (1) pose refutable hypotheses, (2) test the hypotheses with the relevant evidence, and (3) state the results clearly and unambiguously to any interested person. The goal is reproducibility, which is essential to advancing knowledge through experimental science. If these steps are followed diligently, Popper suggested, any reasonable second researcher should be able to follow the same steps to replicate the work.

Objectivity means that certain kinds of motivations should not influence a researcher’s action, even though others will. For example, if a researcher in an experimental field believes in a particular hypothesis or explanation of a phenomenon, he or she is expected to design experiments that will test the hypothesis. The experiment should be designed in a way that allows the possibility for the hypothesis to be disconfirmed. Scientific objectivity is intended to ensure that scientist’ personal beliefs and qualities—motivations, position, material interests, field of specialty, prominence, or other factors—do not introduce biases into their work. Human judgment and decisions are prone to a variety of cognitive biases and systematic errors in reasoning. Even the best scientific intentions are not always sufficient to ensure scientific objectivity. Scientific objectivity can be compromised accidentally or without recognition by individuals. In addition, broader biases of the reigning scientific paradigm influence the theory and practice of science. A primary purpose of scientific replication is to minimize the extent to which experimental findings are distorted by biases and errors. Researchers have a responsibility to design experiments in ways that any other person with different motivations, interests, and knowledge could trust the results.

Honesty: A researcher’s freedom to advance knowledge is tied to his or her responsibility to be honest. Science as an enterprise producing reliable knowledge is based on the assumption of honesty. Science is predicated on agreed-upon systematic procedures for determining the empirical or theoretical basis of a proposition. Dishonest science violates that agreement and therefore violates a defining characteristic of science.

Honesty is the principal value that underlies all of the other relationship values. For example, without an honest foundation, realizing the values of openness, accountability, and fairness would be impossible.

Openness: Openness is not the same as honesty, but it is predicated on honesty. In the scientific enterprise, openness refers to the value of being transparent and presenting all the information relevant to a decision or conclusion. This is essential so that others in the web of the research enterprise can understand why a decision or conclusion was reached. Openness also means making the data on which a result is based available to others so that they may reproduce and verify results or build on them. In some contexts, openness means listening to conflicting ideas or negative results without allowing preexisting biases or expectations to cloud one’s judgment. In this respect, openness reinforces objectivity and the achievement of reliable observations and results.

Openness is an ideal toward which to strive in the research enterprise. It almost always enhances the advance of knowledge and facilitates others in meeting their responsibilities, be it journal editors, reviewers, or those who use the research to build products or as an input to policy making. Researchers have to be especially conscientious about being open, since the incentive structure within science does not always explicitly reward openness and sometimes discourages it. An investigator may desire to keep data private to monopolize the conclusions that can be drawn from those data without fear of competition. Researchers may be tempted to withhold data that do not fit with their hypotheses or conclusions.

In the worst cases, investigators may fail to disclose data, code, or other information underlying their published results to prevent the detection of fabrication or falsification.

Accountability: Central to the functioning of the research enterprise is the fundamental value that members of the community are responsible for and stand behind their work, statements, actions, and roles in the conduct of their work. At its core, accountability implies an obligation to explain and/or justify one’s behavior.

Accountability requires that individuals be willing and able to demonstrate the validity of their work or the reasons for their actions. Accountability goes hand in hand with the credit researchers receive for their contributions to science and how this credit builds their reputations as members of the research enterprise. Accountability also enables those in the web of relationships to rely on work presented by others as a foundation for additional advances.

Individual accountability builds the trustworthiness of the research enterprise builds the trustworthiness of the research enterprise as a whole. Each participant in the research system, including researchers, institutional administrators, sponsors, and scholarly publishers, has obligations to others in the web of science and in return should be able to expect consistent and honest actions by others in the system. Mutual accountability therefore builds trust, which is a consequence of the application of the values described in this article.

Fairness: The scientific enterprise is filled with professional relationships. Many of them involve judging others’ work for purposes of funding, publication, or deciding who is hired or promoted. Being fair in these contexts means making professional judgments based on appropriate and announced criteria, including processes used to determine outcomes. Fairness in adhering to explicit criteria and processes reinforces a system in which the core values can operate and trust among the parties can be maintained.

Stewardship: The research enterprise cannot continue to function unless the members of that system exhibit good stewardship both toward the other members of the system and toward the system itself. Good stewardship implies being aware of and attending carefully to the dynamics of the relationships within the lab, at the institutional level, and at the broad level of the research enterprise itself. Although I have listed stewardship as the final value in the six I discuss in this article, it supports all the others. Here I take up stewardship within the research enterprise but pause to acknowledge the extension of this value to encompass the larger society.

Stewardship is particularly evident in the commitment of the research enterprise to education; both of the next generation of researchers and of individuals who do not expect to become scientists. In particular, there is a need to educate all members of the research enterprise in the responsible conduct of research. Education is one way in which engaging in science provides benefits both to those within the research system and to the general public outside the system.

The writer is former Head, Department of Medical Sociology,

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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