Integrity and ethical practice in conduct of research

Learn the rules and be familiar with the debates

Academic integrity and research ethics are essential to success in the coursework and research components of graduate studies. Learn and follow the rules established at McGill and through governing organizations to ensure compliance with regulations on research ethics. You should also become familiar with the debates about issues in academic integrity.

 

The University has an institutional responsibility to ensure integrity and ethical practice in the conduct of research. This responsibility is devolved to Faculties, departments and schools, research centres, and to those leading research. In the case of graduate research, responsibility for ethical practice is devolved to the supervisor who is overseeing the student’s research project. In other words, there is an institutional responsibility to ensure integrity and ethical practice in doctoral research as well as a pedagogical responsibility to help develop emerging researchers understand appropriate research practices.


What are academic integrity, research integrity and research ethics?

Academic integrity is a broad term that includes research integrity and research ethics, as well as appropriate behaviour in non-research settings, such as avoiding plagiarism, cheating and copyright infringement.

Research integrity is generally defined as a range of good research practices and conduct, which includes:

  1. intellectual honesty in proposing, performing and reporting research (e.g., avoiding fabrication or falsification of data);

  2. accuracy in representing contributions to research proposals and reports;

  3. fairness in peer review;

  4. collegiality in professional interactions, including sharing of resources;

  5. transparency in conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest;

  6. protection of human participants in the conduct of research;

  7. humane care of animals in the conduct of research; and

  8. adherence to the mutual responsibilities of investigators and their research participants.

Research ethics is mainly concerned with the treatment of human participants in research. According to the Tri-council policy statement on ethical conduct for research involving humans, there are three core ethical principles for any research involving human beings.

  1. Respect for persons (to respect their autonomy and “protect those with developing, impaired or diminished autonomy”)

  2. Concern for welfare (to “protect the welfare of participants, and, in some circumstances, to promote that welfare in view of any foreseeable risks”)

  3. Justice (to “treat people fairly and equitably”)

There are also ethical considerations when using animals in research. For more information on this, see the Animals in research and teaching page.

Mandatory online tutorials for students and supervisors

All incoming graduate students at McGill are required to complete an online academic integrity tutorial on Minerva before registering for courses (Student menu → Academic Integrity Tutorial).

All McGill students, faculty or staff acting as the principal investigator, or the supervisor of a student principal investigator, of research involving humans must complete the Tri-Council Policy Statement 2 (TCPS2) online tutorial prior to submitting an application to the Research Ethics Board.

Some programs may require additional training, such as a Responsible Conduct of Research course.

McGill resources on integrity and ethics

Policy documents regarding research integrity and ethics at McGill can be found in the Research Policy and Guidelines section in the University Regulations and Resources. Additional resources and learning opportunities are listed below.

  1. FairPlay, an online resource discussing common issues in academic integrity, including plagiarism

  2. Resources and workshops on integrity and ethical conduct offered through SKILLSETS

  3. This website for researchers, which contains information on research ethics, integrity, and intellectual property

  4. The regulation on the conduct of research

In case of research misconduct, the Research Integrity Officer at the Office of the Vice-Principal Research and International Relations is available for consultations based on the Regulations concerning investigation of research misconduct.

See the Resources page for additional information on academic integrity and research ethics from outside McGill.

International variations in research ethics

Different countries have distinct policies and guidelines as well as procedures for overseeing research practices. Therefore, international students or students who have gained research experience abroad may enter McGill with different views of the ethical practices of research. Here are some strategies to ensure that all students understand Canadian policies and disciplinary practices related to the ethical conduct of research.

  1. Ensure that all students are given a set of textual and/or online resources related to the ethical conduct of research. This can prevent misunderstandings or missing pieces of information that may occur through verbal communication.

  2. Introduce students to the Singapore statement on research integrity, which defines global principles and can be translated from English into many different languages.

  3. Ask students (e.g., through case studies) to consider how other countries' guidelines and practices might lead to different decisions. Such a strategy can be particularly useful for incoming students with international experience as well as students who will be travelling abroad for field work, since they may find that individuals there hold different views of ethical practice than the ones they need to sustain.

What is the difference between misconduct and questionable research practices?

In the context of research, integrity refers to honesty, accuracy, fairness, transparency, and humane treatment of human and other animal subjects. Behaviours such as plagiarism and falsification of data are misconduct and are legally actionable, whereas some behaviours that may not meet the criteria for misconduct are questionable and worth discussing and debating.

 

Misconduct

Questionable research practices

Influences the reliability of research, and is legally actionable

May or may not influence the reliability of research

There is a general consensus that misconduct includes falsification, fabrication and plagiarism (e.g., Fanelli, 2009; Johnson & Ecklund, 2015).

The behaviour involves an intent to deceive (Fanelli, 2009).

Questionable research practices are difficult to define, as there is a lack of consensus on what is appropriate and new situations are constantly arising (Banks et al., 2016; de Vries et al., 2006).

 

Examples include (Fanelli, 2009; Banks et al., 2016):

  1. excluding observations or data points based on a hunch that they are inaccurate;

  2. presenting post hoc results as if they were hypothesized; and

  3. inappropriate attribution of authorship credit.

 

It is essential that students do not perceive ethical practice as purely about gaining ethical clearance, coming instead to see it as justifiably guiding day-to-day practices as well as interactions. Examining and discussing particular cases in meetings or informal seminars can provide a way of exploring the kinds of decisions that students may have to make.

Examples of such cases are demonstrated in the quotes below, which come from McGill’s 2012-2013 Supervision Survey. Are there questionable research practices or ethical dilemmas in these situations? How do you think these issues could be resolved?

[My] student refused to accept that her project be part of a grant application because she could not be a co‐applicant in the grant. [The] supervisee became defensive/possessive about ownership of research data [and] stopped cooperating with supervisors.

I found out at some point that my supervisor asked a postdoc to work on the same topic as me. This was stressful for me, because I had to compete with my own colleagues, and I was afraid of sharing my progress with my supervisor afterwards, because he could ask someone else to do the next step.

We had a serious conflict about the content of a paper which developed into a larger conflict about the scientific profession. The supervisor felt that a paper I had written was ready to submit to a scientific journal while I felt it needed more work. The supervisor said he would submit the paper without me being comfortable with the content, even though I was the first author.

Prevalence and prevention of misconduct and questionable research practices

Research suggests that research misbehaviours - or "questionable research practices" - are more prevalent and potentially of greater concern than blatant research misconduct (which, although it might be legally actionable, tends to occur less frequently) (Martinson, Anderson, & de Vries, 2005). Furthermore, very few doctoral students report that they have a "very clear" understanding of many issues in academic integrity, which may be ameliorated through regular discussions with supervisors and the larger academic community.

 

Many academics admit to performing and observing misconduct and questionable research practices

In a survey of postdocs and mid-career academics in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health (Martinson et al., 2005), 33% reported having engaged in at least one misbehaviour in the previous three years, such as:

  1. data falsification;

  2. ignoring major aspects of human-subject requirements;

  3. not properly disclosing conflicts of interest;

  4. not properly citing others’ ideas; and

  5. failing to present data that contradict one’s own previous research.

These results are supported by more recent research, which has found that up to 3.5% of researchers report participating in falsification, fabrication or plagiarism (Banks et al., 2016; Fanelli, 2016; Necker, 2014) but many more report engaging in other questionable research practices. Over 30% of surveyed researchers admitted to engaging in practices such as (Banks et al., 2016, Necker, 2014):

  1. choosing control variables in order to achieve statistical significance;

  2. selectively reporting results;

  3. selectively reporting hypotheses based on significant findings; and

  4. presenting post hoc results as if they were hypothesized.

It is likely that the true prevalence of misconduct and questionable research practices are higher than these studies suggest, since self-reports often underestimate true prevalence and lack of reporting/misreporting are often involved in these practices (Banks et al., 2016; Fanelli, 2009).

Graduate students often observe questionable practices, and rely on their supervisors for education on integrity and ethics

Questionable research practices are often learned in graduate school. This is supported by studies that found that 22% of misconduct observed by a group of economists involved PhD students (Necker, 2014), and that over 50% of surveyed doctoral students in management observed questionable practices such as the “creation” of hypotheses after results were found and selective result reporting (Banks et al., 2016).

A survey of doctoral students examined the ethical underpinnings of the conduct of research (Golde & Dore, 2001). Students reported both their degree of clarity about the issues as well as the primary source of information they drew on for advice. Rather disturbingly, students demonstrated a lack of clear understanding on many of the issues. And, importantly, the supervisor was most often their primary source of information.

 

Issue

% who claimed "very clear understanding"

Most common primary source (%)

Using copyrighted material

55.1

Written policy (36.1)

Resource care (e.g. animals)

41.9

Written policy (43.3)

Determining and ordering authorship

26.2

Supervisor (56.2)

Appropriate use of research funds

25.8

Supervisor (52.7)

Refereeing academic papers fairly

22.0

Supervisor (54.5)

Avoiding conflicts of interest

12.0

Supervisor (33.8)

Patent policies

9.6

Written policy (37.4)

 

A more recent study found that only 60% of the 3500 surveyed faculty members discussed research misconduct policies with their students, and only 36% gave their students written data management rules (Titus & Ballou, 2014).  The consequences of this are evident in a study of cases of trainee misconduct, in which approximately ¾ of their supervisors did not review the source data with the student, and ⅔ of supervisors did not set research standards (Wright, Titus, & Cornelison, 2008). A contributing factor to these findings may be that there is a lack of consensus of whether training in responsible conduct of research is the responsibility of individual faculty members or the institution (Titus & Ballou, 2014).

Training in integrity and ethics from supervisors and mentors (Banks et al., 2016, Schoenherr, 2015), as well as the setting of a positive example from such role models, is crucial for graduate students to learn appropriate research practices. Participating in roles such as dissertation chairs may help supervisors to gain a better understanding of the responsible conduct of research (Thompson, 2014) and therefore be better able to share this knowledge with their students.

Personal beliefs impact views of research ethics

A study of doctoral students in neuroscience (Holley, 2009) found that research practices involving the “sacrifice” of insects and animals emerged as a source of emotional, personal and professional conflict for students.

Students were challenged on an ongoing basis to reconcile tensions between communal practices and individual beliefs. That is, they knew that if they did not sacrifice the animals then someone else would have to do it for them and they would not be fulfilling their communal responsibility. Some students reconciled themselves by balancing intellectual curiosity with the task and others by focusing on the value that would result from their research. Others were not able to do this and:

a) shifted labs to animals or insects they felt they could sacrifice;

b) sought labs where animals were not used; or

c) left as they realized that they couldn't reconcile themselves.

Holley (2009) noted that orientation documents for students did not deal with the ethical implications of the research and that there were few spaces in which students felt comfortable raising the issue, including the labs in which they worked.

Another study in the social sciences demonstrated that individuals distinguished between paper ethics, ethical standards in their related disciplinary professions, and their own personal commitments to respectful research practices. The differences that sometimes existed among these created tensions as to what constitutes ethical behaviour (McGinn & Bosacki, 2004).

 

References

Banks, G. C., O’Boyle, E. H. Jr., Pollack, J. M., White, C. D., Batchelor, J. H., Whelpley, C. E., Abston, K. A. … Adkins, C. L. (2016). Questions about questionable research practices in the field of management: A guest commentary. Journal of Management, 42(1), 5-20. doi:10.1177/0149206315619011

de Vries, R., Anderson, M., & Martinson, B. (2006). Normal misbehavior: Scientists talk about the ethics of research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(1), 43-50.

Golde, C., & Dore, T. (2001). At cross purposes: what the experiences of today's doctoral students reveal about doctoral education. A report prepared for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Philadelphia.

Holley, K. (2009). Animal research practices and doctoral student identity development in a scientific community. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 577-591.

Fanelli, D. (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS ONE 4(5), e5738. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

Johnson, D. R., & Ecklund, E. H. (2015). Ethical ambiguity in science. Science and Engineering Ethics. doi:10.1007/s11948-015-9682-9

Martinson, B., Anderson, M., & de Vries, R. (2005). Scientists behaving badly. Nature, 453(9), 737-738.

McGinn, M. K., & Bosacki, S.L. (2004). Research ethics and practitioners: Concerns and strategies for novice researchers engaged in graduate education. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 5(2), Article 6.

Necker, S. (2014). Scientific misbehavior in economics. Research Policy, 43(10), 1747-1759. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2014.05.002

Schoenherr, J. R. (2015). Scientific integrity in research methods. Front Psychology 6, 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01562

Thompson, C. J. (2014). Responsible conduct of research assessment of Doctor of Education candidates, graduate faculty, and curriculum considerations. Innovations in Higher Education, 39, 349-360. doi:10.1007/s10755-014-9289-0

Titus, S. L., & Ballou, J. M. (2014). Ensuring PhD development of responsible conduct of research behaviors: Who’s responsible? Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(1), 221-235. doi:10.1007/s11948-013-9437-4

Wright, D. E., Titus, S. L., & Cornelison, J. B.( 2008). Mentoring and research misconduct: An analysis of research mentoring in closed ORI cases. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14(3). 323-336. doi:10.1007/s11948-008-9074-5

Further Reading

Vesilind, P. A. (2007). The responsible conduct of academic research. In A.L. DeNeef & C.D. Goodwin (Eds.), The academic’s handbook (3rd edition) (pp. 112-119). Durham, NC: Duke University Press

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.
Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, McGill University.

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