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Supply and demand in RCR instruction

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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

Posted by Josh Mahler at 05/20/2009 03:47:26 PM | 


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