Everyone agrees that research integrity is important. It refers to maintaining trust in science. But what does this imply for researchers? And how can we ensure research integrity in practice?
This blog post accompanies the publication of our webinar on Research Integrity on the CO:RE platform. Here you can read about the concept of research integrity, including both how this has been developed in research policy and how researchers actually work with it in practice. You will also find links to additional resources of interest.
What is research integrity? Conceptual work and guidelines
Despite the vital importance of research integrity to ensure trust and strengthen the quality of research in practice, it is a concept that can be difficult to grasp. Many researchers and students feel like they don’t know what it is or how to ensure it. During our webinar, we conducted a poll, asking our audience if they knew what they should do in the event that they discovered a breach of research integrity. 75% of those participating in the poll did not know.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Contemporary research practice has not arrived at an agreement on the definition of research integrity. However, our current understanding arises from work to enhance awareness of its importance. As a result of an increased reporting of breaches of research integrity, researchers, funders and research organisations implemented efforts to improve trust in science and strengthen research quality from the 1980s onwards.
The concept of research integrity is related to both research ethics and responsible research; however, there are some key differences. During our webinar, Professor of Anatomy Ana Marušić from the University of Split, Croatia, helped us understand these differences:
Professor Marušić also pointed out that incidents of research and publication misconduct can occur along a spectrum of practice, from research design to publication. Publishing, in particular, is very important as it is often at this stage that misconduct is detected. Therefore, journal editors and researchers, research organisations, and funders have an important role in ensuring research integrity and responding to concerns.
To illustrate, securing informed consent is ethically and professionally considered the gold standard when recruiting research participants. This is perhaps especially the case when conducting research with children. However, in a recent publication, Marušić and Buljan (2020) demonstrated how 60% of publications about clinical trials involving children and young people do not report on the rate of consent in their research. This raises questions about how research integrity is implemented in professional practice.
How can research integrity be managed and implemented in practice?
Based on recent experiences of managing the H2020 funded project DigiGen, Professor Halla Bjørk Holmarsdottir at the Department of Primary and Secondary Teacher Education at Oslo Metropolitan University shared her reflections about challenging aspects of managing and implementing research integrity in practice.
First and foremost, understandings of research integrity, and research ethics, vary from country to country. Professor Holmarsdottir illustrated this point with reference to the topic of seeking informed consent from research participants. The DigiGen project explores the impact of digital transformation on children and young people. However, in each of the participating countries, the age at which children and young people can provide autonomous consent to participate in research varies. In practice, this means that consent forms need to be individually tailored to local contexts. However, it also affects the kind of data that can be collected and has consequences for how this data can be compared and analysed.
Professor Holmarsdottir reflected further on how differences in the age of consent related to concerns about the vulnerability of children and young people. At the same time, she argued for the importance of respecting these people’s agency and decision-making capacity, particularly the need to recognise their capacity to provide or deny autonomous consent to research participation.
Concurring with Professor Marušić, Professor Holmarsdottir outlined three important stages where research integrity should be considered, namely: planning research, conducting research and the dissemination of results.
At the same time, Holmarsdottir noted that this is a difficult field to navigate. Many international organisations are engaged and interested in promoting good research practice. These organisations have produced a range of different documents and guidelines on the topic that can be overwhelming for those seeking to understand how to make good decisions in their own practice. Penalties for breaches of research integrity can also be quite severe, including exclusion from research for periods of 5 or 10 years.
Research coordinators are thus expected to devote a significant amount of their time to reporting on the planning, management and implementation of research integrity. To illustrate, Professor Holmarsdottir described a requirement from the European Commission to develop a policy for incidental findings for the DigiGen project. Such a policy should outline sound research practice in the event that researchers were to discover issues of concern when working with children and young people (such as concerns about children being abused). In Holmarsdottir’s experience, such policies have previously been developed primarily for medical research. They have not been significantly discussed in the social sciences. Developing this policy was, therefore, no small task for the DigiGen project.
Professor Holmarsdottir and the panellists agreed that it was important to ensure sufficient resources (in particular in the form of working hours) for those involved in the implementation of research integrity in any research project.
But what happens when things go wrong? How can researchers deal with breaches of research integrity?
Assistant Professor Malte Elson from the Human Technology Interaction Lab at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, reflected on his experience of reporting a breach of research integrity in the case of the ‘Boom, Headhsot’ article. This study explored the effect of exposing children and young people to violent computer games.
It was originally published in the journal Communication Research as an ‘online first’ paper in 2012. Initially, Elson’s colleague, Patrick Markey, queried the analysis in the publication. This led to the discovery of a breach and a long and complicated process implemented by both Elson and Markey to retract the paper.
In the case of the Boom Headshot study, there was no good explanation as to why two datasets existed- one of which confirmed the hypothesis of the study. Based on his experience, Elson pointed out that in the event of co-authorship, all authors should agree to some minimal standards of cooperation. For example, all authors should have access to the entire dataset on which a publication is based. There should also be a paper trail that records important decisions which both authors and external reviewers can follow.
Elson’s presentation included a timeline (see image below), an interactive version of which can be found on his website. The timeline shows how it took 67 months, from the initial publication of the paper to its retraction.
While this case was complicated, the panellists discussed the extent of similar breaches in the scientific community and confirmed the importance of the peer review and publication process in detecting these. These breaches can also relate to the competence of researchers. Both individual researchers and research organisations, therefore, have a role to play in recognising this. Furthermore, those reporting on breaches of research integrity need support and guidance to ensure that their concerns are heard and that the process by which these are managed is effective.
So – why is research integrity so important?
Professor in Medical Ethics Göran Hermerén from the University of Lund, Sweden, outlined why research integrity is important for the research community. Cases of research misconduct are increasingly reported in the public sphere, and the rate at which publications are retraced can be considered alarming. As this occurs in a broader climate of fake news and alternative facts, trust in science is diminished. It is important to ensure trust in research, both for funders, research subjects, users and editors.
Research practice involves many grey zones, including questionable practices. It is often difficult for the research community to reach agreement on whether these are examples of haste, negligence or incompetence, or whether they represent deliberate attempts by researchers to deceive the public. In order to support researchers, and research organisations, in navigating this difficult landscape, the ALLEA European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity was developed. Professor Hermerén outlined both the process through which the Code of Conduct was developed and the way in which it can be used. He emphasised that the Code of Conduct presents a general framework for research integrity and does not regulate precise details. It should rather be understood as a basis for national and discipline-specific policies.
Importantly, the ALLEA Code of Conduct is also a living document precisely because both scientific and regulatory landscapes are not static. It needs to be able to respond to changes as they occur. Working with research integrity is therefore reliant on what Hermerén conceptualises as MLE or mutual learning experience. This includes processes and structures for mutual learning, incentives, communication and dialogue and training and education.
Finally, Professor Hermerén emphasised that we as researchers need to do something about the grey zones in which breaches of research integrity rise. Our research culture needs to become more aware of these grey zones, and we need to find ways of managing them in practice.
Research integrity is important because it aims to ensure trust in science. This is essential both for individual researchers and research organisations as well as for funders and members of the public. However, there is no agreement on a definition of the concept of ‘Research Integrity’, either in Europe or worldwide. The concept relates to research ethics and responsible research but is distinct in its focus on establishing professional standards for research practice. Our panellists provided insight into how difficult it can be to ensure research integrity in practice, particularly in international research projects where different local standards and regulations apply. Penalties for breaches of research integrity can also be quite severe, enhancing the incentive for researchers, and research organisations, to ensure that their work is implemented according to applicable professional standards. Finally, reporting on breaches of research integrity can be a long and arduous process, which may require significant resources from individual researchers. As a result, research organisations should work to ensure support for researchers when potential breaches of research integrity are discovered.
Our webinar revealed how many do not know what to do in the case of a discovery of a potential breach of research integrity. As a result, more work needs to be done within the research community to raise awareness amongst researchers and their organisations of how to work with research integrity in practice. In the CO:RE project, we work to fill this gap by developing a resource base for researchers and others interested in this topic. We will also engage the research community in discussion on this topic through our website, blog posts, social media and series of webinars. In this way, we will keep abreast of emerging topics in the field and questions and concerns relating to these.
Furthermore, research integrity should be based on mutual learning experiences, where researchers, research organisations, funders and other relevant stakeholders should participate. Research organisations should facilitate processes and structures for mutual learning, incentives, communication and dialogue and training and education.
Finally, managing research integrity requires resources, and these resources should be taken into consideration in research funding processes.
Resources for researchers on research integrity:
Our speakers pointed to several helpful resources and guidelines that support researchers and research organisations in their practice. Some are initially informed by work in the medical field, as the risk to health and life arising from research in this field is significant. Guidelines include the ALLEA Code of Practice for Research Integrity. Several projects aiming to support the development and practice of research integrity have also been implemented in Europe during the past thirty years. Important recent projects include the ongoing SOPS4RI project which aims to develop standard operating procedures for research integrity, and the Embassy of Good Science, which aims to offer help and support to anyone seeking advice about how to handle day-to-day research practice and dilemmas.
Part of our work in the CO:RE project is in developing a resource base for researchers and students working with questions and dilemmas relating to research integrity and research ethical issues, the CO:RE Compass for Research Ethics. Take a look and send us your feedback!
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