Don't let views cloud scientific integrity

Global ethics guidelines set out researchers’ duties to be clear and above board, writes Paul Jump

September 23, 2010

Researchers should make it clear that they are going beyond their professional expertise when they make recommendations about the policy implications of their research, according to a new international agreement on research integrity.

The “Singapore Statement” was drawn up before the Second World Conference on Research Integrity, which took place in the island state in July, and was released on 22 September after consultation with the 350 delegates from 50 countries.

Its 14 universal research “responsibilities” include an injunction to “clearly distinguish professional comments from opinions based on personal views” when taking part in public discussions.

Nick Steneck, the director of the research ethics and integrity programme at the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, who helped draft the guidelines, told Times Higher Education that some scientists “blur the lines between their scientific findings and their own positions on issues”.

He said many people felt that the “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia had been an instance of such behaviour. “Although (scientists) may have strong feelings about what policies should be adopted based on their research findings, they are generally not policy experts,” he said.

Studies showed that scientists’ views were often influenced by their source of funding, Professor Steneck added. “When they carry their bias into the public sphere without clearly separating what they know as experts from what policies or actions they would like to recommend, they are violating this responsibility.”

However, he continued, researchers had a right to voice their personal concerns and were also obliged to “weight societal benefits against risks inherent in their work”.

Professor Steneck said previous progress on research integrity had been made only in response to “major and often embarrassing single cases of misconduct or reports of widespread questionable practices”. He said a fully fledged international agreement on research integrity would need a plan of action and regular evaluation of its impact, but he hoped the Singapore Statement would encourage governments, organisations and researchers to be proactive.

“By modestly paving the way, we hope that it will be easier for others to provide the leadership needed to promote research integrity on a global basis,” he said.

POLICING STANDARDS: Postgraduate Quality Controls

An international statement has been agreed on the assessment of postgraduate education quality.

Delegates at the Strategic Leaders Global Summit in Brisbane, Australia, last week recognised the need to develop assessment frameworks geared specifically towards master’s and doctoral education.

The 43 delegates agreed on 10 principles, one of which was recognition of the value of developing metrics for different aspects of research degrees, such as the quality of dissertations, the impact of research and the development of research communication skills.

Another key principle was the development of professional and transferable skills.

“Quality assessment is most effective when academic staff play a role in designing or refining evaluation procedures,” the agreement adds.

The conference - which was run jointly by the North American Council of Graduate Schools and the Australian Group of Eight research-intensive universities - was attended by leaders in graduate education from 17 countries.

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