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