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Recognizing ''Gray Areas'' in Scholarly Integrity

An all-or-nothing view of scholarly integrity gives rise to some curious behavior. For example, last year, when I was planning a conference on international research collaborations, several people advised me to be sure that the word "integrity" did not appear in the title, lest researchers steer clear. (Since when do people avoid integrity?) Then, about a month ago, I was talking with a university physicist about research conduct, and our discussion turned to scientists who misbehave. His response was, "The problem is that they aren't punished enough. Throw 'em in jail and leave the rest of us alone!"  

I don't think that researchers see their own work as perfect and above reproach. To the contrary, I think that researchers are fully aware of problems in their own conduct. People are imperfect and their work is complicated. Things go wrong. People make mistakes and bend the rules. New technologies and novel situations sometimes call for seat-of-the-pants ethical decisions, which may or may not prove justifiable in retrospect. What David Goodstein called "minor hypocrises" and my colleagues and I have termed "normal misbehavior" is a routine part of scholarly research.  

Researchers know that complicated situations give rise to ambiguous ethical choices. Like the physicist, they are eager to dissociate themselves from those who engage in egregiously bad behavior, but I think they are also uncomfortable with the idea of integrity as an impossible standard of perfection. They are all too aware of their own lapses and uncertainties.  

The idea of scholarly integrity needs to be grounded in a sense that researchers seek to behave well in sometimes ambiguous circumstances. This view should lead to open consideration of gray areas and ethical complexity, which should draw researchers into the discussion, rather than promote avoidance. Discussions about scholarly integrity need to address practical research issues and problems as they arise, as well as ways to ground solutions in general principles of good research conduct.

Integrity is far more useful when it is treated as a focus point for dealing with ethical problems than as a standard of perfection.

Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota


Supply and demand in RCR instruction

Instruction in the responsible conduct of research suffers from a basic imbalance between supply and demand. On one hand, 20 years' worth of attention to scholarly integrity has produced masses of books, cases, exercises, simulations, scenarios, videos, etc., that can be used in instructional settings. Resources on the web and computer-based training provide ready access to materials. Instructors have much to choose from in designing units on ethics, moral development, critical thinking, ethical decision-making, and so on. The supply is abundant.

What about demand? It's no secret that researchers tend to view instruction in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) as an annoyance. Few look forward to updating their own training for recertification purposes. Few volunteer to teach courses or units on ethical issues, and few include anything beyond cursory attention to RCR in the courses they teach. Few regularly build discussions of ethics into their lab meetings. Laurel Smith-Doerr's research has documented scientists' unwillingness to participate in RCR instruction, which they see, for the most part, as taking valuable time and attention away from their research.

The incentives have lined up in quite predictable ways to produce this imbalance. When institutions were confronted with federal mandates to assure that their researchers were prepared to conduct research with integrity, they naturally turned to people in bioethics, philosophy, and education and encouraged them to devise instructional approaches to RCR. These creative people responded to the challenge with gusto, building on their expertise in ethics and related areas. Meanwhile, the researchers were, for the most part, far less involved in the process. Their lack of expertise in teaching about ethical issues and their willingness to let others take over the instructional role ensured that they were minor contributors.

The situation plays out differently, depending on the institution's stage of RCR development. Some institutions have been virtually untouched by mandates for instruction on research integrity. In Australia, for example, graduate education is research-based, with virtually no formal, instructional component. I talked recently with an Australian scientist about RCR efforts at her institution. In short, there are none at present. I asked her how the students learn about proper behavior in science, and she shrugged and said, "By osmosis, I guess." She was not aware of any attention to the responsible conduct of research, apart from normal good practice.

In other institutions, RCR instruction has formally arrived, but it is treated essentially as a matter of compliance. Mandated training is handled as expeditiously as possible. As a microbiology department chair at a U.S. university told me a couple of weeks ago, scientists view integrity instruction as a waste of time and try to get out of it any way they can. One hears stories about scientists who assign one member of the lab the responsibility of completing the mandated, online training modules, recording all the correct answers along the way. These answers prove useful to the other lab members who then quickly complete the required modules, though sometimes the original person completes them on behalf of all the lab members. In one of my articles, I told about a doctoral student who was required to complete an online course in order to be certified to do research on human subjects. She completed the training, which should have taken several hours, in under a half hour, through judicious guessing on the assessment questions. As for the required online text? "Well," she said, "that looked like a lot of reading, so I skipped that."

There are institutions, far fewer in number, that have elaborate RCR programs. These universities – my own, the University of Minnesota, among them – tend to be places that have experienced the mixed blessing of a major ethical scandal. Here, circumstances have empowered administrators to demand that faculty and all others who have responsibility for funded research take regular RCR training. Here, finally, we come to a case where supply and demand must be somewhat more balanced. Well, yes, to some extent – but even here, the enthusiasm of RCR instructors (and I am one of them) cannot fully overcome the resistance of faculty who still see the whole endeavor as a waste of time.

My research over the past 20 years has been in the area of research integrity, misconduct and related issues. I have posed the above Emperor-has-no-clothes proposition to begin our discussion together. In subsequent entries, I plan to consider what we can do about this basic conundrum and others. I look forward to our connections in blogspace.

Melissa Anderson, University of Minnesota


The Use of Video Vignettes in RCR Training

/uploadedImages/PSI/Blog/University_of_Alabama_at_Birmingham.jpgOne of the most innovative approaches to teaching ethical deliberation and the responsible conduct of research (RCR) is the use of video vignettes. If properly contextualized in a classroom or an online tutorial, videos can have unique “interactive” possibilities. Students and faculty can actively engage with questions and dilemmas commonly encountered in research settings or in the advising relationship. They can imagine different scenarios and the potential ramifications of different kinds of decisions, or they can picture themselves in the shoes of other students or faculty members who may be engaged in making bad choices or ethically questionable decisions.

Some sample video vignettes as well as their contextual materials are accessible at the following website of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB):

The website first presents students with a situation that can easily lead to ethical missteps, and asks them to reflect about their own experiences. Students are then invited to watch a short video sequence in which characters confront, and make ethical decisions about, the situation and its consequences. Throughout the segment, students are asked to provide short observations about the characters in the video and to articulate their suggestions for how best to resolve their “real-world” dilemmas.

Video resources have prompted researchers and educators to consider the importance of interactive pedagogies and modes of delivery for teaching ethical deliberation and the responsible conduct of research. Some of the most interesting questions raises by such resources include:

• What is the effect of training resources that require student input? How are such materials different from those that simply provide students with information or guidelines about the responsible conduct of research?

• Is there special value in resources that “tell a story” about characters facing a difficult ethical situation in research or scholarship? Do these resources prompt student—and faculty—to respond differently to ethical issues than they do when they encounter information and materials that are not based on hypothetical or real-life cases?

• What are the “learning outcomes” of RCR modules involving interactive technology? How might educators describe the goals of such learning modules? How might their actual outcomes be assessed?

• Is there added value to using technology in the teaching of RCR and ethical deliberation?

While online and video resources are only one small part of a comprehensive RCR or scholarly integrity program in graduate education, there is a wide variety of such “interactive” materials available for direct implementation in RCR education or for adaptation to research ethics education at the graduate level. A number of the most recently developed approaches, including the approach used at UAB, were presented at an RCR Workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools. The presentations of the RCR Workshop are summarized below by Jeffrey Engler, with links to some of the accompanying materials.

Please feel free to post a comment on any of these approaches or on other resources in RCR education.

Summary of RCR workshop held December 3, 2008 at CGS Annual Meeting

This workshop focused on the development of use of video vignettes and case studies as resources to educate graduate students about scholarly integrity and responsible conduct of research.

Dr. Elizabeth Holmes, faculty member in the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the US Naval Academy, demonstrated a video approach to ethics education, organized as interactive simulations to engage students in scenarios to identify how choices made during the simulation can lead to good and bad outcomes. The simulations lead students through a series of instructional stages, including moral awareness, moral judgment, moral intention, and moral action. These simulations are linked to values and strategic imperatives espoused by the US Naval Academy and build leadership skills and responsibilities among the midshipmen. The home page for the Stockdale Center is where the simulation “Last Call” is available for download.

Dr. Lee Williams, Vice President for Research at the University of Oklahoma, described research in the psychology of teaching ethical concepts. Faculty and graduate students in the Department of Psychology developed an ethical decision model based on research into the taxonomy of ethical behavior and the individual and situational influences to such behavior. Unlike traditional approaches, this research recognized that complex work and ethical problems involve professional, social and ethical consequences. The rationale of the pedagogic approach is that students need decision-making strategies to promote ethical behavior. To implement this goal, a two-day seminar with 10 modules has been developed to promote ethical decision making, with post-seminar evaluation of effectiveness. Faculty and student satisfaction with the content of this seminar has resulted in substantial acceptance and demand for expanding this approach.

Dr. Jeffrey Engler, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the UAB Graduate School, described strategies to engage faculty and students in a continuing discussion of scholarly integrity issues. Based on these small group discussions, two video vignettes (“Amanda’s Dilemma”; “Whistle Blower”) have been created for online web education ( These videos have been organized in the “Query – Video Presentation – Query” format developed by Dr. Sara Vollmer at UAB; each segment of the presentation provides an engaging initial question, followed by a short video segment, and then a second question to allow further deeper reflection. “Amanda’s Dilemma” has also been incorporated into a one-hour workshop, in which small groups of graduate students discuss the issues involved in and strategies for avoiding plagiarism; a brochure summarizing the content of the workshop can be downloaded at This workshop has been presented to more that 400 graduate and undergraduate students; post-workshop assessments show that these interactive sessions have been highly effective. Dr. Engler’s presentation can be found at:

Dr. Paul Braunschweiger, co-founder of the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI), described video vignettes prepared at the University of Nebraska and the use of web-based materials to train students and faculty in areas of responsible conduct of research. Dr. Braunschweiger discussed the relative merits of web-based instruction, including ease of use, availability of materials 24/7, and high user satisfaction. CITI has invested substantial effort to measure the efficacy of their online instructional materials. CITI currently offers 8 web-based modules with more becoming available in the next year. Many of these modules incorporate video vignettes (such as those from the University of Nebraska) to stimulate engagement and other interactive materials to enrich the student training experience. The web site for the CITI program can be found at

Jeffrey Engler
University of Alabama at Birmingham


Welcome to The Project for Scholarly Integrity website

As the President of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), I am delighted to introduce the website of the Project for Scholarly Integrity, an invaluable new collection of resources on research ethics designed specifically for the graduate community. Please share our list of resources with the members of your university— administrators, faculty, and students—by sending them to our searchable (and growing) Resources page.  

In addition to these resources, the Project for Scholarly website presents up-to-date reports from the universities that have received awards from CGS to develop new strategies for fostering cultures of responsible research. The names of our Awardees and Affiliates as well as the summaries of our funded projects can be found here. One of the unique features of the website is that it presents the activities of these projects as they happen, as well as the most useful information and outcomes that result from them. It is our hope that you will take inspiration from these projects on your own campuses!

With the goal of making the PSI website an interactive resource, CGS has also created this blog, which is open to anyone interested in discussing topics relevant to scholarly integrity and research ethics. The blog is an excellent place to share thoughts and questions about specific issues related to research integrity. It is also a space for graduate deans and other university leaders to share new ideas and tools for assessing and improving research cultures. We look forward to joining this dialogue with you; please post a comment to the blog by registering here.  

Best Regards,

Debra Stewart
Council of Graduate Schools
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