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Winter 2011

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Research Ethics Training
Paula Garcia McAllister, PhD

Knowing Research Rights from Wrongs

"University Fires Professor Who Admitted Faking Data"

"University Suspends Researcher over Animal Welfare Problems"

"Federal Audit Faults University over Researcher’s Financial Conflict of Interest"

"Professor Sued for Revealing Data"

"Former Ph.D. Candidate Found Guilty of Misconduct"

"University President Accused of Plagiarism"

This collection of headlines shows how research ethics violations affect all levels of the university. Fabricating and falsifying data, giving undue credit or failing to give credit where credit is due, and failing to comply with research regulations all constitute various types of research misconduct.

But how do researchers know what to do when faced with a question of research ethics? And, perhaps more importantly, do they know an ethics violation when they see one?

The Office of the Vice President for Research, has recently subscribed to a series of Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) courses through an online resource called Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI). The purpose of these courses is to make research ethics training available to NAU faculty, students, and staff.

It is also a partial answer to the National Science Foundation’s recent requirement for all researchers, including students, to take a research ethics course prior to funding.

All aspects of research have ethical considerations, from data collection to peer review to student mentoring. The RCR courses focus on the topics referenced below. There are also related courses on animal research and human subjects research. All of the learning modules include copious examples and case studies, and each module ends with a short quiz. Anyone affiliated with NAU can log on to the CITI website to take the courses. The examples and case studies can be adapted for classroom use in a research methods course in just about any subject area.

1. The Research Misconduct course focuses on basic issues of research ethics, such as fabrication and falsification of data, plagiarism, what to do if misconduct is suspected, and the federal agencies that investigate and publish cases of misconduct. It serves as an overview for the other topics in the RCR course.

2. The Data Acquisition and Management course focuses on the collection, storage, retention, and disposal of data, incorporating the challenges that arise depending on the different forms that data take, such as electronically-stored data. It also addresses data ownership issues and the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that clarified intellectual property rights. Here is a sample question from the Data Acquisition and Management module:

Which of the following types of person is most likely to “own” the data resulting from a research project?

  1. A faculty member working on a government-funded project
  2. A faculty member working on assignment from his/her institution
  3. A graduate student or fellow working under the direction of a faculty member
  4. A faculty member working on his/her own

Feedback: The correct answer is “4.” A faculty member working on his/her own may claim ownership of his data. In all the other cases, data ownership may fall to other parties. That is particularly true for graduate students or fellows, working under the direction of a faculty member.

3. The Publication Practices and Authorship module discusses the transgressions of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. It defines several deceptive authorship practices, such as gift or honorary authorship, political authorship, and ghost authorship. It also provides guidance on how to deal with real-life problems such as determining the order of authors and how to make acknowledgements. Resources on the ethics surrounding authorship are provided at the end of the module.

4. The Peer Review module looks at manuscript and grant application review, taking on issues such as reviewer bias, inappropriate use of information garnered from a manuscript under review, and the review processes of federal funding agencies. Some of the topics and questions addressed in this section may provide information on seldom-discussed ethical dilemmas.

Here is a sample question from the Peer Review module:

If a reviewer becomes aware, from reading a grant application or submitted manuscript, that her research may be unprofitable or a waste of resources, what actions are considered appropriate and ethical?

  1. A peer reviewer is entitled to take full advantage of information garnered through the review process to enhance their own research projects.
  2. It is considered ethical to discontinue the current line of work in light of the new information obtained from the review.
  3. The decision to stop or alter a line of research based on the privileged information from a grant or manuscript review is unethical and should be avoided.
  4. According to guidelines from the society of neuroscience it is inappropriate to stop such unsuccessful research.

Feedback: The correct answer is “2.” It may be considered unethical to continue in a direction known to be in error. As a courtesy and collegial gesture, the reviewer should contact the author and inform the author of this decision and perhaps even begin a collaboration.

5. The Mentoring module describes the mentor-trainee relationship as the “social foundation of research,” science’s answer to the master and apprentice tradition. The information provided in this module is intended for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, junior faculty, senior researchers, and department and research administrators. It discusses the roles and responsibilities of both mentor and trainee, finding the right mentor, and “boundary” issues such as potential conflicts of interest, giving proper credit for contributions, and data ownership. The information in this module puts mentors and trainees on the same page regarding expectations, needs, and preferences. It is an invaluable starting point for all faculty and students.

6. Conflicts of Interest and Commitment deals with one of the least understood ethical issues in academia. This module discusses potential vs. actual conflicts of interest, objectivity vs. bias, conflicts of commitment and conflicts of conscious, and, of course, financial conflicts of interest. It also provides a more detailed discussion of the Bayh-Dole Act and federal conflict-of-interest regulations. Additionally, it talks about how to manage conflicts of interest and the possible repercussions of non-disclosure. This module supplies multiple resources and references to further guide faculty and research staff. Here are two sample questions from the Conflicts of Interest module:

Dr. Smith spends a significant portion of his time pursuing work for someone other than his primary employer. This may represent:

  1. A conflict of commitment
  2. Selective in attendance
  3. Conflict of conscience
  4. A tangible conflict of interest

Feedback: The correct answer is “1.” Conflicts of commitment, which may also be called conflicts of effort or conflicts of obligation, occur when the extent of time spent on a secondary activity competes with the time expected to be spent on teaching, research, or service by the primary employer. A conflict of conscience occurs when personal beliefs influence objectivity in research. A tangible conflict of interest implies that a financial relationship is the basis for the conflict and potential bias. Selective in attendance occurs if Dr. Smith's mind-set causes him to overlook important data or to misperceive critical observations.

Strategies for managing conflicts of interest at the individual level may include:

  1. Modifying the research plan, including changing the site(s) of the trial.
  2. Including the investigator's financial relationship to the sponsor in all written and oral presentations, publications, and abstracts.
  3. All of the above

Feedback: The correct answer is “3.” All selections are strategies to reduce the conflict of interest. Other options are divestiture of significant financial interests, severance of relationships that create actual or potential conflicts, and disqualification of the researcher from all or part of the research project.

7. As researchers collaborate more and more, the ethical considerations surrounding Collaborative Research Activities become more relevant to faculty, students, research staff, and university administrators. This module points out possible pitfalls in collaborative research, suggests ways to enhance good collaboration, and dissects the complex role of institutions in the collaborative process.

The RCR course available through CITI provides a base of common knowledge for professors, students, administrative staff, and anyone who is involved in research at the university. It provides a foundation in research ethics for students and a refresher, with perhaps some new information, for faculty and long-time researchers. By going through the RCR modules, researchers read about the types of ethical dilemmas that occur in academic life and receive sound guidance on how to deal with them.

There is further information on RCR and the sign-up process available online, or contact me with questions at

—Paula Garcia McAllister, PhD, Human Protections Coordinator

Reprinted with permission from Outcomes