INTEGRITY AND ETHICS

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Integrity and ethics

Academics are held in high esteem by the general population. Integrity, therefore, is both critically important to a researcher’s reputation within academia, but also for upholding the esteem of the field. Integrity [1] and ethics [2can take many forms: from undertaking rigorous and well-designed research, submitting and receiving ethics clearance to undertake research, ensuring that your work is open, replicable, and easily accessible, and treating your colleagues, peers, and students with respect.

Codes of conduct in academic research

Academic integrity is the moral code of academia. For research practices to be ethical, they must respect various ethical principles, many of which originate from The Principles of Biomedical Ethics (1797). This classic tome on medical ethics sought to integrate ethical theory with disciplined, self-conscious medical practice through principalism [3]. The principles of ethical practice [4], listed below, are still considered by many as the standard theoretical framework from which to analyse ethical situations.

  1. Autonomy [5]: to allow individuals to act in accordance with their own goals

  2. Beneficence [6]: to act for the benefit of others

  3. Non-maleficence [5]: the duty to do no harm

  4. Justice [7]: allowing for due process and fairness in outcomes

 

Similar principles have been developed over time, such as the Helsinki Declaration – an internationally recognized set of medical ethics principles developed, in part, from the horrors of Nazi human medical research and experimentation in World War II.

 

In Australia, applying for ethics approval from a research institution typically follows the practices outlined in The National Health and Medical Research Council code for responsible conduct of research [8]. This code serves as a foundation for high-quality research, credibility, and community trust in the research endeavour. The following six principles characterize an honest, ethical, and conscientious research culture [9]:

  1. Honesty [9][10] in the development, undertaking and reporting of research

  2. Rigour in the development, undertaking and reporting of research

  3. Transparency in declaring interests and reporting research methodology, data and findings

  4. Fairness in the treatment of others

  5. Respect for research participants, the wider community, animals and the environment

  6. Recognition of the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be engaged in research that affects or is of particular significance to them

  7. Accountability for the development, undertaking and reporting of research

  8. Promotion of responsible research practices

 

Researchers working in academic institutions should take care to adhere to the specific guidelines of their institution, whether this is informally or via the submission of an ethics application for review and approval by a faculty ethics committee.

Why does ethical research matter?

Maintaining trust and integrity in academia is an ongoing process. Recent events have shaken the core of integrity in research institutes, including the so-called ‘replication crisis’ [11].  

The replication crisis refers to the ongoing methodological crisis, particularly in psychology, that has caused an unprecedented level of doubt about the reliability of research findings [11], including very well-known phenomenon.  Numerous explanations have been proposed for the replication crisis, including questionable research practices (QPRs). Such practices include [12][13]:

  • Failing to report all study conditions and/or variables e.g., only reporting significant outcome variables, or ignoring failed manipulations

  • Choosing sample size depending on current results e.g., collecting more data if results are not significant, or terminating data collection early if the desired result has been found

  • Conducting studies with small sample sizes (a rule of thumb is less than 20 observations per cell) that are not sufficient for detecting the estimated effect size

  • ‘Rounding off’ a p-value so it appears to be less than .05

  • Deciding whether to exclude data after first checking the impact it has on results

  • Reporting an unexpected finding as though it had been predicted a priori

  • Falsely claiming that results are unaffected by demographic variables

  • Failing to report the statistical results with and without excluded data or covariates, when a significant result may be reliant upon these decisions

  • Falsifying data

 

However, a variety of additional causes of the replication crisis have been proposed, including structural problems such as the file-drawer problem, a hyper-competitive academic climate, and an incentive scheme that rewards unexpected and controversial findings over replications or less flashy scientific work [11].

So, what happens when academic integrity is compromised by sloppy research practices? Failing to comply with ethical principles and practices can result in a range of negative outcomes, such as charges of research misconduct [14]. Research misconduct is a serious offence that can lead to a loss of reputation and opportunities for research funding, affect public support, and undermine confidence in the integrity of your entire field of study [15]. Importantly, people who engage in academic misconduct are more likely to be dishonest and unethical in their business practices [16][17].

Other ethical issues in academia

Integrity and ethics do not just apply to the process of doing research but can also impact other aspects of academic work for both staff and students.

 

Plagiarism [1] is a serious form of academic misconduct, involving taking the credit for the work of someone else, who is the true author of an idea, document, or report. This can occur when a more senior person steals the work of a junior subordinate but can also occur when students or junior researchers fail to adequately provide citations and references to another person’s work.

Plagiarism may have a range of causes. In a qualitative study of 23 faculty members from medium-sized, public universities [19], most interviewees viewed the majority of plagiarism by students as unintentional and a result of ignorance of proper citation practices. However, more problematic is the rise of contract cheating [20], a form of plagiarism whereby students pay a ghost writer to complete an assessment on their behalf. Although contract cheating appears to be relatively infrequent – occurring between 0.3 – 7.9% of the time according to published research – the majority of students who cheat once will do it again [20].

Finally, academia is not immune to some of the unethical practices apparent in other industries. Harassment and discrimination are relatively common practices [22][23] and have negative impacts on those who experience it [24]. However, harassment does not only occur from those in more powerful positions towards their subordinates; some research has also examined contrapower harassment – when students act in an uncivil or harassing way towards faculty. Although men report greater sexual attention from students, women in academia were more upset by these experiences, were more negatively impacted, and were more likely to report it.

Strategies for improving integrity and ethics in academic research

The replication crisis has unearthed a range of QRPs and sloppy science. However, many researchers have been quick to respond with proactive ways of restoring integrity and ethical conduct. The Open Science Movement, in particular, has developed a set of processes that can address some of the potential causes of the replication crisis, as well as improve the transparency, accessibly, and integrity of academic research cycle as a whole [25][26]. It is an umbrella term, encompassing a range of practices – such as open source programming, open access journals, open peer review – that are aimed at removing barriers to sharing and collaborating at any stage of the research process. Below is a visual representation of how openness can be promoted at any point during the research cycle:

The Center for Open Science has promoted a set of badges that can be awarded to publications by participating journals. These badges can be displayed on papers that meet certain Open Science standards, including:​

Pre-registration

The Preregistered or Preregistered+Analysis Plan badges are earned for preregistering research.

Open data

The Open Data badge is awarded when digitally-shareable data necessary to reproduce the reported results are publicly available.

Open materials

The Open Materials badge is earned by making publicly available the components of the research methodology needed to reproduce the reported procedure and analysis.

Ethics for academics

A 2003 article discussed the possibilities and pitfalls of constructing a code of ethics for university professors [27]. The article suggests the following six aspirational principles (i.e., principles that provide broadly worded moral ideas that do not attempt to identify situationally specific right and wrong behaviours):

  1. Concern for others’ welfare
    Researchers should have a positive effect on the people they work with, while taking care to do no harm.

  2. Fidelity
    Researchers should establish relationships of loyalty and trust with the people they work with.

  3. Social responsibility
    Researchers should accept appropriate responsibility for their behaviours and avoid conflict of interests.

  4. Integrity
    Researchers should promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in their work.

  5. Justice
    Researchers should work in a fair manner taking into account issues of equality, impartiality, and proportionality.

  6. Respect for people’s rights and dignity
    Researchers should show respect to the fundamental rights, dignity, and worth of all people.

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