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Promoting a culture of integrity

World conference discusses educational experiences that promote good scientific practices starting from a researcher’s early career stage

fapesp_conduta3MAURÍCIO PIERROfrom Rio de Janeiro

The challenge of communicating good scientific practices starting from the early stage of a researcher’s career was one of the most important issues on the agenda for discussion at the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity, which brought nearly 500 professionals from more than 45 countries to Rio de Janeiro May 31 – June 3, 2015.  Nearly two dozen presentations reported the findings of education and training programs established all over the world to promote a culture of integrity at universities and research institutions, as a sign that the debate surrounding academic integrity is no longer limited to the formulation of ethical guidelines and penalties in cases of data fabrication, falsification and plagiarism – the main hotspots in the field of discussion of research misconduct.  Current discussions are already reflecting the concern about high school students who from a very early age are in contact with tools capable of facilitating plagiarism on school assignments.

Brazil, represented by more than 200 participants, has few educational programs. “Brazil faces a long road ahead in implementing broad educational policies on research integrity,” said Sonia Vasconcelos, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and one of the event organizers.  “The conference was an opportunity for participants to familiarize themselves with what institutions in various countries are doing so that they can determine how to move forward.”

Among the experiences highlighted were online training for students and researchers—the content of which can be adapted to any institution.  One example is the European program known as Epigeum, used by nearly 230 universities in more than 27 countries.  It was created in 2005 as a spin-off of Imperial Innovation, a company based at the Imperial College of London. Among dozens of online courses on subjects of interest to science and academia, the one on research integrity is one of the most requested.  It is divided into five modules that cover topics such as research planning, conflicts of interest and attribution of authorship on papers, and it comes with teaching tools like videos and online discussions.  Epigeum also has a course, which discusses the definition of plagiarism and ways to identify it.  It is as yet unclear what impact educational programs are having on researcher practices.  “We’re developing a questionnaire to analyze how each user absorbs the knowledge covered in the courses,” said Nicholas Steneck, director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program at the University of Michigan, which coordinates the Epigeum course.

The strategy of providing online training may be useful, but it has its limits.  For example, it needs to take into consideration whether the content is suitable to the context of each individual country. “It’s imperative that an assessment of the culture of each research environment be conducted before implementing these programs,” noted Sabine Kleinert, editor of the journal The Lancet and co-chair of the conference planning committee.  In her view, the ideal scenario would be that such initiatives complement the educational activities carried out at each university.

Another experience is the University of Miami’s Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). Established in 2000, it offers online content in 10 languages and is already in use in 77 countries.  Its training on responsible conduct of research is divided into 11 modules.  Some are available in Portuguese, such as those that define conflicts of interest, types of misconduct and ways of managing research data.  Like Epigeum, use of the CITI modules is not free.  It requires payment of annual subscription fees.

fapesp_conduta3MAURÍCIO PIERROThe content’s approach is linked to the guidelines of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US federal agency that funds basic research and, since 2007, has mandated training in research integrity at the institutions it funds. The CITI program does not just reflect the reality of the United States, however.  In recent years, the initiative has grown with the establishment of centers in four other countries: Japan, Canada, India and South Korea.  They are developing content adapted to local demands, with collaboration of researchers from other cultures.  In India, for example, CITI is used at the University of Sri Ramachandra in the ethics training of physicians, with an emphasis on responsibility in clinical trials.

In Brazil, CITI is based at two institutions:  the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS). “In addition to taking part in a 16-hour classroom course, faculty and students at UFRJ and its partner institutions are expected to complete CITI’s electronic module,” explained José Roberto Lapa e Silva, a professor at the UFRJ School of Medicine. PUC-RS is studying the use of CITI to expand training activities that have already included holding workshops and seminars and distributing educational material to undergraduate students and researchers. “Now we would like to reach professors who advise researchers as they begin their graduate careers,” said Rosemary Shinkai, a professor at PUC-RS.

Incidents that involve misconduct such as fraud and plagiarism have increased in recent years, to a large extent due to the growth in scientific production.  A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2012 indicated the causes for the retraction of 2,047 scientific papers indexed in the PubMed repository and produced by researchers from 56 countries.  Only 21.3% of the retractions were attributable to unintentional errors, while 67.4% of the retractions occurred because of misconduct. Of these, 43.4% were attributable to fraud or suspected fraud, 14.2% to duplicate publication, and 9.8% to plagiarism.

The underlying causes for the proliferation of unethical practices in science were widely discussed at the conference.  For many researchers, the phenomenon is related to the reward system currently found in science.  “Researchers are evaluated according to their productivity.  The way they receive support, are awarded grants and advance in their careers is tied to the number of articles they publish,” claimed Rosemary Shinkai, of PUC-RS. In her estimation, this system needs to be rethought. British physicist Philip Moriarty of the University of Nottingham has supported changes to the model. “The journal impact factor sometimes says nothing about the quality of an individual work,” he stated.

One inevitable question is: what causes a senior researcher who has a solid academic career to engage in misconduct in scientific studies?  For Paulo Beirão, scientific director of the Minas Gerais Research Foundation (FAPEMIG), the answer involves variables that are at times intangible.  “There are factors that even experienced researchers are not always able to control. Researchers are generally very busy, involved in administrative and teaching activities that leave them insufficient time to closely monitor what they publish in partnership with excessive numbers of students and collaborators,” explained Beirão, who was a member of the Research Integrity Committee of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) from 2011 to 2013. Since assuming positions in management, Beirão has reduced the pace of his own research on spider and scorpion toxins at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) to avoid this problem.  “Administrative tasks did not impede my work as a researcher but I ended up publishing less,” he said.

The pressure that researchers place on themselves to publish many articles can lead to errors.  “In a competitive environment, the researcher’s imagination is seized by the notion that, in order to be the best, she needs to publish excessively,” said Beirão. Justification for this, says the professor, is not always based on reality because Brazil’s funding agencies have avoided such quid pro quos. “Funding agencies tend to be criticized for the pressure on researchers, but most of them do not support production in large quantities.  What they do expect is a reasonable number of high-quality articles.”  At the conference, Zoë Hammatt, director of the division of education and integrity at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the United States, presented an overview of the rationales given by researchers who have been investigated.  One graduate student, for example, claimed he was under “great pressure.”  Some expressed uncertainty and the fear of disappointing colleagues and supervisors.  “I was terrified of the possibility of making a mistake and having my colleagues and students see me fail,” said one researcher who fabricated data.  “These cases show that misconduct has many causes and each case needs to be carefully investigated,” Hammatt said.

The cases investigated by the ORI are used to help develop educational programs at research institutions.  Recently, the office published a document that contained more than 20 case studies.  The examples, based on actual scenarios, come with guidelines as to how to approach such situations in the classroom.  One of the cases presented is that of a foreign researcher without English writing skills who submitted to her supervisor in the United States a paper in which 80% of the text had been plagiarized.  It is suggested that the student discussion begin with the question:  should she be expelled from the program or given a second chance?”  For study coordinator James Dubois, a professor at Saint Louis University, the goal is to stimulate discussion.  “We want to encourage course instructors to be creative and help students develop critical thinking,” Duboi wrote.

Touted as a promising initiative for education on research integrity in Europe, the Good Scientific Practice (GSP) program involves institutions and universities from Germany, Luxemburg and France.  Unlike online initiatives, its objective is to promote workshops that involve researchers in the early career stage.  As of May 2015, 25 events have been held.  The GSP also offers courses to faculty members who are conducting scientific research integrity activities with their students. According to Helga Nolte, a professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany, and member of the GSP, one problem associated with the ethics training of students is the low level of engagement by professors in educational programs created by their institutions. “It makes for additional work, which for many, should involve financial compensation,” she said.

In South Korea, researcher participation has helped structure a training program in good practices created in 2014 by the Korea Institute of Human Resources Development in Science &Technology (KIST).  The institution met with researchers to identify which issues they needed to understand better.  Ninety-three percent of the researchers reported feeling that there was a lack of information about how to publish articles according to the proper standards.  Another 79% pointed to a need for the discussion of social responsibility in science.  “We have organized courses for a program on the basis of this discussion,” explained Eun Jung Ko, a representative of the Korean institute.

In May 2015, Ghent University in Belgium announced the launch of a program to strengthen research integrity principles among its researchers, especially those just starting their careers.  A similar strategy was put into practice by the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, which established a panel tasked with offering training in good practices in the biomedical field.

The Brazilian experience in promoting a culture of research integrity is recent.  FAPESP’s Code of Good Scientific Practices was introduced in 2011 and established a set of ethical guidelines governing the professional activity of researchers who receive grants and scholarships from the Foundation.  The document has served as a reference for other institutions, such as the CNPq and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), to develop their own standards.  “But we are still just beginning the process,” noted Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos, charged with coordinating the drafting of the FAPESP code and a member of the conference organizing committee.  “It is up to the funding agencies to encourage research institutions to recognize their need to participate in the process,” said Lopes dos Santos, who is head coordinator of the FAPESP Special Panel on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Architecture and Economics.

In São Paulo, some institutions are beginning to more actively develop educational activities on research integrity.  At São Paulo State University (Unesp), the ethics committees for each institutional unit are promoting events on good research practices throughout the year.  One of them is targeting undergraduate students at the Unesp Undergraduate Science Conference; another is directed more towards individuals who have recently earned their PhDs, faculty members and recently hired researchers.  “The code developed by FAPESP along with guidelines from CNPq are used as parameters for holding workshops and symposia that target researchers in the early career stage,” explained Maria José Soares Mendes Giannini, dean of research at Unesp.  “That will enable us to assume a stronger role in the ethics training of researchers.”

fapesp_conduta3MAURÍCIO DE PIERROConcern at the University of São Paulo (USP) is about undergraduate and graduate students.  The goal is to establish preventive measures that help diminish the need to investigate violations and establish penalties.  “Misconduct is a challenge of humankind itself.  It has always existed and will continue to exist,” said José Eduardo Krieger, dean of research at USP.  “But we have to invest in mechanisms that can prevent it from spreading throughout the university.”  USP does not have an institutional research integrity program, but it does have initiatives headed up by faculty from several departments.  The Office of the Dean of Research is planning to hold two large events on the subject, open to students, professors and staff later in 2015.

The dean acknowledges that responsibility for promoting research integrity lies primarily with the universities and institutions that host students and researchers, but he emphasizes the need to work closely with funding agencies and editors of scientific journals.  This is because, even though the university is paying attention to the issue, it does not have the tools to identify problems at all stages of research.  “Shared action is absolutely necessary,” he said.

One of the first educational initiatives in research integrity in Brazil was the 2007 creation of a mandatory course on ethics and research integrity for master’s and doctoral students of the Military Institute of Engineering (IME), in Rio de Janeiro.  However, UFRJ seems to be the institution that has the most experience on the subject.  Since 2011, the Carlos Chagas Filho Institute of Biophysics has offered a course on ethics and research integrity for graduate students.  The Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Engineering Research (COPPE) offers an eight-hour extension training course in scientific methodology and research ethics.  Since 2013, classes have been available on the TV COPPE website. In 2015, the Leopoldo de Meis Institute of Medical Biochemistry (IBqM) at UFRJ began offering the course “Responsible Conduct in Research” to graduate students.

At the undergraduate level, UFRJ also offers electives aimed at issues related to research integrity. Mariana Ribeiro, a recent biomedical graduate at the university, took two such electives in 2013 and 2014: one on the sociology of science, taught by Professor Jacqueline Leta; and another on scientific communication, taught by Sonia Vasconcelos. “I’ve always been interested in these subjects, but never knew much about them,” said Ribeiro.  The scientific communication classes included discussions about authorship, plagiarism, the dynamics of scientific production and the importance of clear and responsible communication by the researcher with the public and her peers.  “In high school, we were given only limited notions of plagiarism,” said a student who is planning to begin his master’s studies on research integrity at UFRJ in the second semester of 2015.

At the opening ceremony of the conference, Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), underscored the need for working on such issues in schools.  “The problem of research integrity has its origins in high school,” she said.  “Today, young people in school are using new communication technologies such as tablets and smartphones to do their homework, often copying texts without knowing that it constitutes plagiarism.”  The rush to reproduce segments copied from the Internet in their school assignments, without properly attributing authorship, has grown at the same speed at which the worldwide web has acquired a multitude of uses. With high school students, there seems to be no lack of information about the implications of committing plagiarism.  In a master’s thesis defended at the Federal University of Espírito Santo in 2014, Mariana Santolin Romaneli interviewed 40 public and private high school students from the city of Vitória.  Invited to give their opinions about a hypothetical case of plagiarism on a school assignment, most considered plagiarism wrong and worthy of being penalized with a “grade of zero” or a requirement to do the assignment over using original content.

University faculty and teachers at private high schools have been using plagiarism detection software to deter the growing number of violations.  UFRJ has acquired a license for software capable of identifying plagiarism in assignments.  It determined that nearly an entire monograph by one history student had been copied and her diploma was withdrawn.   But the UFRJ university council allowed the student to do a new monograph and, for teaching purposes, she was admitted as an intern to the Research Ethics Advisory Council (CTEP) designed to promote and address issues related to research integrity.

For Sonia Vasconcelos, the fourth edition of the conference has made progress toward furthering the discussion of ways to promote research integrity at institutions and identify many of the challenges.  For Melissa Anderson, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, the educational programs reinforce the idea that responsibility in fighting misconduct belongs to all of us. “Success depends on the dedication of all actors in each country’s science and technology system,” she said.

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