Knowledge for Development

Towards a global ethics science code

Author: Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota, USA

Date: 21/07/2011

Introduction:

Research integrity and scientific misconduct are issues of global concern. Science itself is a global enterprise. Academic research is increasingly international, as communication technology enables worldwide collaboration. The trustworthiness of scientific findings is fundamental to the progress of science everywhere. Falsification of records or results, dishonesty, misrepresentation and other inappropriate acts all compromise science. They waste scarce resources that could be used for legitimate scientific research and jeopardize future funding of science by government and private organizations.

Certain aspects of cross-national research make concerns about integrity even more critical. Collaborators from different countries may work under different laws, regulations, customs and assumptions concerning the conduct of research. What is acceptable in one country may be illegal in another. At present, however, there is no organization or other body with global responsibility for research integrity. There is no worldwide agreement on what constitutes research integrity or, in fact, how the term "integrity" should be understood, given that it cannot be translated directly into some other languages. Likewise, scientific misconduct is open to interpretation, as countries exhibit different levels of tolerance for plagiarism or inaccurate authorship lists.


 

Towards a Global Ethics Science Code

Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota, USA

Research integrity and scientific misconduct are issues of global concern. Science itself is a global enterprise. Academic research is increasingly international, as communication technology enables worldwide collaboration. Graduate students and young researchers seek training and research opportunities outside their home countries. Corporate research and development are globally interlinked, as illustrated by the expansion of biomedical clinical trials in the developing world.

The trustworthiness of scientific findings is fundamental to the progress of science everywhere. Falsification of records or results, dishonesty, misrepresentation and other inappropriate acts all compromise science. They waste scarce resources that could be used for legitimate scientific research and jeopardize future funding of science by government and private organizations.

Certain aspects of cross-national research make these concerns even more critical in the international arena. Collaborators from different countries may work under different laws, regulations, customs and assumptions concerning the conduct of research. What is acceptable in one country may be illegal in another. For example, some countries have regulations on the use of human and animal subjects in research that may be difficult or impossible to comply with in other countries, because of conflicting regulations or religious requirements. On the other hand, some researchers take advantage of other countries' loose oversight and regulation to do research that would be unacceptable in their own.

At present, however, there is no organization or other body with global responsibility for research integrity. There is no worldwide agreement on what constitutes research integrity or, in fact, how the term "integrity" should be understood, given that it cannot be translated directly into some other languages. Likewise, scientific misconduct is open to interpretation, as countries exhibit different levels of tolerance for plagiarism, inaccurate listing of authors, and other questionable practices

Codes of Conduct for Research Integrity

In the absence of international regulatory bodies and other oversight mechanisms, codes of conduct for research integrity are a promising means to foster global agreement on the responsible conduct of research. They cannot ensure good behaviour, but they establish standards against which behaviour can be measured.

Codes vary in their intent and use. Some are aspirational in that they identify ideal behaviours. These codes are not usually intended to represent standards that can be met on a daily basis but rather exemplary behaviours that all can strive to enact. They are typically issued by scientific associations without any means of enforcing compliance. In contrast, other codes identify minimal standards that must be met at all times. These codes are common in situations when an organization intends to ensure compliance and has some means of punishing those who violate the standards.

The most prevalent and useful type of code lies between these extremes. It identifies good behaviour that researchers should enact, behaviour well above the baseline of acceptable conduct but not at the level of an unattainable ideal. Such codes can be useful to the development of national or institutional policies, as they represent shared understanding of appropriate conduct.

Steps toward a Global Code of Conduct

The need for international agreement on scientific integrity and misconduct is recognized anew each time a major case of misconduct attracts worldwide attention. Misconduct by the scientists Shinichi Fujimura of Japan (Normile, 2001), Woo Suk Hwang of South Korea (BBC, 2005), Jon Sudbø of Norway (Horton, 2006), Eric Poehlman of the USA (Interlandi, 2006) and Anders Pape Møller of Denmark (Borrell, 2007) contributed to subsequent policy formation in their countries and elsewhere. Scandal has, unfortunately, been an effective motivator for the development of integrity standards.

Cases of misconduct often affect people beyond national borders. Widespread networks of collaborators, co-authors, former students and funding agencies can be implicated by the wrongdoing of a single scientist. Dealing with a misconduct case can be difficult and costly in any national or institutional setting; coping with misconduct that crosses borders can be particularly complicated (see case below).

Case

(Based on an incident mentioned in Boesz and Fisher, 2011, p.123).

Scientist A submits a grant proposal to an agency in another country. The proposal is reviewed by Scientist B in that country, who gives it a low rating. Scientist B then inserts part of the original text into a grant proposal that he submits to a funding agency in Scientist A's country. The plagiarism is discovered when Scientist A is asked to review the new proposal. The situation is complicated by the different review systems of the agencies in different countries and by the fact that the grant proposals in both cases fall under the agencies' confidentiality provisions.

What should Scientist A do, upon discovering the plagiarism?

How should the funding agencies involved handle the issue?

What sanctions should be imposed on Scientist B?

In 2006, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) took up the issue of scientific misconduct in its Global Science Forum. Through workshops and subsequent committee work, it developed two documents intended to give guidance on misconduct ("Best Practices for Ensuring Scientific Integrity and Preventing Misconduct," OECD, 2007) and investigations ("Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Research Projects: A Practical Guide," OECD, 2009).

The European Science Foundation and the All European Academies (ALLEA) recently published the "European Code for Conduct on Research Integrity," (ALLEA, 2011). According to the ALLEA website, this consensus document "stands as a canon for self-regulation…. It is not intended to replace existing national or academic guidelines, but to represent a Europe-wide agreement on a set of principles and priorities for the research community."

A third cross-national initiative emerged from the First and Second World Conferences on Research Integrity, which took place in Lisbon (Mayer and Steneck, 2007) and Singapore (Anon, 2010), respectively. The need for international guidance on research integrity was identified at the first conference and addressed at the second through the publication of the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (2011), currently available in 14 languages.

 

The Singapore Statement

 

The preamble to the Singapore Statement notes that "The value and benefits of research are vitally dependent on the integrity of research. While there can be and are national and disciplinary differences in the way research is organized and conducted, there are also principles and professional responsibilities that are fundamental to the integrity of research wherever it is undertaken." The Statement is intended to encourage and guide the development of policy and standards at national, disciplinary and institutional levels. Based on the fundamental responsibilities listed in the Statement, other documents can provide guidance that is both more detailed and more locally oriented in the area of research conduct.

The Statement first identifies four fundamental principles. The principle of honesty in all aspects of research underlies the truthful presentation of all research. It is violated through several of the worst forms of misconduct: specifically, fabrication of research results, falsification or research records or findings and plagiarism – all of which involve dishonesty and misrepresentation. The principle of accountability in the conduct of research means that scientists must take responsibility for all their contributions to research. Professional courtesy and fairness in working with others are important in ensuring that science is conducted in an environment of respect, collegiality and appropriate rewards for good ideas and work. Good stewardship of research on behalf of others recognizes scientists' debt to the public and private sources of funding that support their research. As a set, the principles support the responsible conduct of research in multiple, overlapping ways.

The rest of the Singapore Statement consists of fourteen responsibilities of researchers that are critical to ensuring research integrity. The first, named simply "integrity," states that researchers should take responsibility for the trustworthiness of their research. In English, the concept of integrity signifies wholeness and completeness; research has integrity if it is whole and complete (that is, not lacking) from an ethical standpoint. As noted above, the concept does not translate readily into some other languages, and so the Statement identifies trustworthiness as a criterion by which the integrity of research can be judged.

The remaining responsibilities fall into the following categories: the research process (adherence to regulations, responsibilities related to methods, record-keeping and results), publication (authorship, acknowledgement and peer review), disclosure (of conflicts of interest and in public communication), dealing with irresponsible research practices (reports and responses), research environments and societal considerations.

 

Points of Agreement and Disagreement

 

The Singapore Statement is intended to represent fundamental points on which there is substantial global agreement. Given that general agreement, there would be no particular need to promote the Statement if all scientists already complied with the responsibilities that it describes. There is evidence, however, that scientists do sometimes violate fundamental standards and even more often behave in irresponsible ways that can compromise the integrity of the scientific record. Such behaviours are often referred to as "questionable research practices," and, though seldom exposed, they can have a substantial cumulative impact on science.

Consider plagiarism, which violates all of the Statement's four principles as well as the specific responsibility of publication acknowledgement. Avoidance of plagiarism is a simple matter of giving original authors appropriate credit when using their ideas or words, by citing the original sources and by enclosing direct quotations in quotation marks. Plagiarists, when caught, have defended their conduct by referring to local or disciplinary customs that permit the use of others' text without direct acknowledgement, or by noting that methodological descriptions may be used in more than one publication without notation, or by citing the difficulty that scientists from non-English-speaking countries face in preparing manuscripts for English-language journals. None of these arguments excuses plagiarism, and none would absolve a scientist who is accused of plagiarism. That these arguments are sometimes presented suggests that there is a need for the global scientific community to affirm that plagiarism is wrong and is not to be excused on these grounds.

The responsibility for responding to misconduct likewise prompts disagreement. The integrity of science is dependent in part on scientists' intolerance for others' misbehaviour, and so it is fundamental that irresponsible practices should be reported and halted. Disagreements lie in how misbehaviour should be handled. The Singapore Statement exhorts scientists to report inappropriate conduct and institutions to develop procedures for responding to allegations in ways that protect those who make allegations in good faith.

Based on the Statement's principles and responsibilities, national and cross-national bodies can develop more specific guidance that addresses points of disagreement, different activities undertaken by scientists in the course of their work, and different approaches to handling deviations from responsible research practice.

The intended outcome of all efforts to promote research integrity should be the assurance that scientific findings are trustworthy. Uncertainties inherent in the scientific process are tolerated and addressed through the mechanisms of the scientific process. Ambiguity and error introduced through irresponsible conduct should not be tolerated.

References

ALLEA. 2011. European Code for Conduct on Research Integrity. European Federation of National Academies of Sciences and Humanities, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
http://www.allea.org/Content/ALLEA/Scientific%20Integrity/Code_Conduct_ResearchIntegrity.pdf

Anon. 2010. Second World Conference on Research Integrity, Singapore.
http://www.wcri2010.org/index.asp

BBC. 2005. S Korea stem cell success 'faked'. BBC News website. 15 December.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4532128.stm

Boesz, C.C. and Fischer, P.L. 2011. International cooperation to ensure research integrity. In: Anderson, M.S., and Steneck, N.H. (Eds). International Research Collaborations: Much to be Gained, Many Ways to Get in Trouble. Routledge, New York, USA.

Borrell, B. 2007. A fluctuating reality: accused of fraud, Anders Pape Møller has traveled from superstar evolutionary biologist to pariah. The Scientist 21(1): 26, 1.
http://www.jorgenrabol.dk/files/thescientist1.pdf.

Horton, R. 2006. Retraction — Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the risk of oral cancer: a nested case-control study. The Lancet 367 (9508): 382.http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2806%2968120-8/fulltext

Interlandi, J. 2006. An Unwelcome Discovery. New York Times, 22 October.
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/magazine/22sciencefraud.html

Mayer, T. and Steneck, N. (Eds). 2007. Final Report to ESF and ORI First World Conference on Research Integrity: Fostering Responsible Research. Lisbon, Portugal, 16-19 September 2007. European Science Foundation, Strasbourg, France.
http://www.esf.org/index.php?eID=tx_nawsecuredl&u=0&file=fileadmin/be_user/activities/research_conferences/Docs_NEW/2007/2007-242_Official_%20Final_Conference_Report.pdf&t=1311084921&hash=6ae5e054c6b02999dfa54b9066e98ace

Normile, D. 2001. Japanese fraud highlights media-driven research ethic. Science 291: 34-35.
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/291/5501/34.short

OECD. 2007. Best Practices for Ensuring Scientific Integrity and Preventing Misconduct. OECD Global Science Forum. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, France.
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/37/17/40188303.pdf

OECD. 2009. Investigating Research Misconduct Allegations in International Collaborative Research Projects. A Practical Guide. OECD Global Science Forum. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Paris, France.
http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/42/34/42770261.pdf

Singapore Statement on Research Integrity. 2011. 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity.
http://www.singaporestatement.org.

21/07/2011

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