Integrity: The Most Important Research Practice

Categories: Impact, Instruction, Research Ethics, Research Roles, Research Skills

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The focus for January is on researchers’ roles, including characteristics and skills critical to success. Read the whole series here.

Researchers engage in a wide range of activities, from identifying problems and questions, designing and conducting inquiries, analyzing and interpreting data, to disseminating findings. For those activities to be deemed worthwhile, for their findings to be seen as credible, the researcher’s integrity must be beyond question. Research designs and the nature of involvement of human participants are often evaluated by ethics review boards, but the focus on approval of data gathering means little attention is given to other phases or implications of the study (Kara, 2018). A commitment to reach integrity is rarely part of the oversight process.

We assume that researchers are honest, transparent, and respectful. We assume that they will approach their work ethically—even when they labor behind closed doors. We expect that researchers will go beyond simple avoidance of wrongdoing or questionable research practices (Nichols-Casebolt, 2012). We expect researchers will exercise some measure of virtue ethics, that is, we expect that they will go beyond simply following rules or guidelines and rely on an internal compass, personal value system or moral code when making decisions.

Protection of human subjects has traditionally been the cornerstone of research ethics. Today, we need to be equally concerned with protection of the credibility of empirical research itself. For scholarly, peer-reviewed research findings to counter alternative facts in the Internet age, readers need to believe that researchers are trustworthy. As deRoche and deRoche (2010, p. 387) observed:

Science depends on trust. Two concerns ensue: reliability of the scientific knowledge base; and the public good name of research. First, despite checks and balances in scientific culture (rigorous training, replication, peer review, and critique), one can readily misrepresent methods or findings. Obviously unethical, under cultural proscriptions about lying and the assumption that distortions set back our knowledge base, dishonesty harms us all. Second, exposure of a lying researcher undermines public trust in science and scholarship generally. This sets back future research by reducing the likelihood of funding or the credibility of well-researched policy recommendations. More deeply, it diminishes popular trust in the social system, hence community cohesion.

Science depends on trust. Two concerns ensue: reliability of the scientific knowledge base; and the public good name of research. First, despite checks and balances in scientific culture (rigorous training, replication, peer review, and critique), one can readily misrepresent methods or findings. Obviously unethical, under cultural proscriptions about lying and the assumption that distortions set back our knowledge base, dishonesty harms us all. Second, exposure of a lying researcher undermines public trust in science and scholarship generally. This sets back future research by reducing the likelihood of funding or the credibility of well-researched policy recommendations. More deeply, it diminishes popular trust in the social system, hence community cohesion.

Today’s wary public needs not only trustworthy findings, they need clear explanations of what we are doing, and why. They need to see the good ideas we discover put into practice to improve the lives of individuals and the health of the planet. They need us to answer two basic questions: how do I know you are telling the truth, and what difference can this truth make in my life? To respond, we need to start with some soul-searching to reconnect with our moral compass.

Over to you!

As you start this new year, will you commit to ethical practice in the large and small steps you take as a researcher? Will you reflect on your research roles, whether you are a solo researcher or member of a large team, a newbie or old hand at research? Can you improve the impact of your research by being more transparent about your choices and process? Will you consider how your approaches influence others, including students or those you supervise? If  you have insights to share, use the comment area.

Kara, H. (2018). Research ethics in the real world. Bristol: Policy Press.

deRoche, J., & deRoche, C. (2010). Ethics. In A. J. Mills, G. Durepos, & E. Wiebe (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Nichols-Casebolt, A. (2012). Research integrity and responsible conduct of research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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