The University Record, February 18, 1998

National Conference on 'Managing Research Integrity': Communication may be key to combating unethical conduct

Participants in the panel on 'The Ethical Climate' were (from left), moderator David Smith, Veronica Barcelona, Steven Kunkel, Joshua Margolis, Karen Muskavitch and Julie A. Reyes. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Jane. R. Elgass

Genetic research and regulation. Human cloning.

Expectations placed on investigators, competition for grants.

The real or imagined pressure to produce.

Giving and getting appropriate credit.

Lack of accountability.

These issues were identified last week as "most troubling" by five panelists at the conference on "Managing Integrity in Research." The two-day program was sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) and the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Public Health Service.

The panelists were asked to share their perceptions of the key issues surrounding ethical conduct in research by moderator David H. Smith, director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and professor of religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Education of undergrads a good beginning

Education about responsible conduct in research needs to begin at the undergraduate level, said Veronica Barcelona, a senior in the School of Nursing and peer adviser in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).

She noted that while many more U-M undergraduates than in the past are participating in UROP, they often are not aware of existing standards of conduct. During their early years in college, she noted, "students are forming their values and beliefs." It is important that they be educated early about responsible behavior, which will lead to "fewer aberrations and conflicts in the future."

Barcelona attended an OVPR-sponsored program on ethical conduct last year and realized that there were no guidelines for undergraduate students. As a result, she created "UROP Student Guidelines for Responsible Conduct in Research." The publication includes case studies and articles that are meant for discussion among students and with faculty mentors.

'Preventive ethics' keeps small problems from becoming big ones

Michigan State University graduate student Julie A. Reyes told the Rackham Amphitheater audience that "preventive ethics" are the best way to create a research environment that is conducive to ethical behavior.

Faculty members, their graduate students and staff should work in an atmosphere that fosters open communication so issues can be dealt with before they become a problem, Reyes said. "If minor problems are not addressed, they will grow large and affect the research process."

Preventive ethics "should permeate the entire department and unit," Reyes said. There should be a strong communication system, an open, honest environment in which expectations and policies are clearly outlined.

Reyes, who edits a newsletter on ethical issues in research, said she has found that the departments with the most clearly defined expectations were the "best units, with happy, productive faculty."

Tension arising from standards of rigor, relevance is healthy

Asking the right questions of the right audiences-rigor-and balancing work based on prior literature with that in untried areas-relevance-often lead to tensions in research, said Joshua D. Margolis, visiting assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Business School. Margolis feels this is a healthy tension that can contribute to research integrity as the investigator strives to satisfy both standards.

He sees dangers in succumbing to the myriad pressures put on researchers, including those to publish and produce quickly, to deliver immediate applications to satisfy a hungry citizenry looking for the latest fix to a problem, and those that may be explicitly or implicitly associated with sources of funding.

These pressures, he said, can combine to create a "dysfunctional tension" that leaves the scholar feeling helpless or caught up in "blind production" of research.

Often there's no clear 'yes' or 'no'

Open discussion of ethics in research is more prevalent, but there are still those who see it as an "extra" and don't pay much attention, said Karen Muskavitch, assistant professor and assistant scientist of biology at Indiana University, Bloomington. And while these discussions are a good sign, there is a tendency to look for quick "yes" or "no" answers, she said, adding that she is frequently asked "to sit in judgment."

The questions she deals with most often relate to misappropriation of "my project, my idea." It's inevitable that these are major issues, because career advancement requires recognition. The rise in collaborative and team work in research has prompted more questions about such things as ownership and control of data, she said, urging establishment of guidelines for this type of work.

Technology can be tempting

It is the responsibility of the laboratory director to set the tone that leads to an environment in which integrity is practiced and respected, said Steven L. Kunkel, who is associate dean for interdisciplinary programs and initiatives at the Graduate School and professor of pathology heading a 20-person laboratory.

Kunkel outlined the pyramid of participants in the laboratory setting-undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, the laboratory director-all of whom are facing pressures to excel and be recognized, adding that the concept of "publish or perish is truly there."

He also warned of the perils of technology, providing two examples of digitized data that were easily manipulated in several ways by a computer program.