Integrating Integrity

August 14, 2012

Graduate schools need to do a better job teaching their students about responsible and ethical research, according to a report being released today by the Council on Graduate Schools.

If they do, they will have more success preventing research misconduct, the report states.

The report, Research and Scholarly Integrity in Graduate Education: A Comprehensive Approach, suggests that university administrators should work with faculty members and graduate students across disciplines to boost research integrity. For example, a successful workshop offered in one discipline can be adapted for another discipline or a course in research ethics taught intermittently by one professor could be taught by other faculty members.

These are some of the suggestions in the report that collected data from six research universities -- Columbia, Emory, Michigan State and Pennsylvania State Universities, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Arizona --  as part of the council’s “Project for Scholarly Integrity,” which was funded by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. The project, which began in 2007 and concluded this year, surveyed how graduate students are trained about research integrity, and the answers were used to develop more comprehensive programs at these six universities.

One key finding: an overwhelming number of students learn about research and scholarly integrity from their advisers, be it conflict of interest issues or research misconduct. (See related graphic.) When faculty members across the six institutions were asked how their students learn about research misconduct, 70 percent said they did so through their advisers. Sixty-seven percent of faculty members said students rely on advisers to know more about conflict of interest issues. This could pose problems because such instruction could be uneven, instead of students being trained through workshops or printed material.

Research Integrity Infographic
“These data point to the need for more effective reach of programs,” said Daniel Denecke, associate vice president of programs and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools. “The research suggests that grad students are calling for a better quality research integrity education. What we have seen in the [Project for Scholarly Integrity] is an over-reliance on advisers and mentors.”

The report states that the academic community will make greater progress combating research misconduct only when education about ethical research is “embedded into institutional practices and graduate programs, and not merely seen as a perfunctory add-on or mere compliance requirement.”

The survey’s findings suggest that central leaders within an institution should be coordinating research integrity efforts, Denecke said. “Graduate school can leverage resources for broader participation of faculty,” he said. “Using the data, universities can develop a comprehensive approach that they have not been able to use in the past.”

According to the report, the University of Alabama at Birmingham used the project to give its graduate students more regular opportunities to “develop skills for responsible research.” “By developing a program that was fully integrated into graduate training, UAB sought to make it easier for students and faculty to frequently and openly discuss research ethics,” the report said. As part of the project, the university asked graduate students about their perceptions and organized workshops on scholarly integrity.

The University of Arizona organized campuswide discussions on the importance of research integrity and allowed faculty members and graduate students to have more of a say in decision-making related to the issue, the report said. The university began a conference on research integrity while an advisory group of junior faculty and graduate students held discussions with administrators on how to develop policy. A grant program enabled junior faculty and graduate students to “think creatively about ways to engage their students in discussions about the responsible conduct of research,” the report said. 

Andrew Comrie, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Arizona, said that the project created a strong foundation for research integrity at the university. “We were able to stimulate new activity and elevate what we value campus-wide,” he said. “This allowed us to jumpstart engagement with individual programs and cement relationships across campus.”

“It helps everyone.  If you have graduate students and postdocs modeling good behavior, the undergraduates are going to learn from them,” Comrie said.

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