Research integrity: what is it about?

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(Research) Integrity

Integrity is about

  • doing the right things
  • doing things right
  • all of this at the right time
  • regardless of whether no one is watching
  • or a lot of people are watching.

Integrity is inherently connected to what we do, or not do, it is reflected in our behaviour.


This is true for our daily social interactions, but it is equally true in a professional context. After all, an integer attitude does not stop when we go to work.


Integrity in a professional context will be more focused on getting the job done with care and in correspondence to the rules and responsibilities of the profession, in this case aligned with the research context and therefore called "research integrity".


Research integrity is a part of professional responsibility. But because it is an extension of a general form of integrity, the principles of research integrity are relevant to everyone; after all, in general, they also apply outside the research setting.

Definition

There is no international consensus on a real definition of research integrity (RI). There are descriptions in which everyone will undoubtedly recognize many aspects. Always bear in mind that these descriptions have limitations, they will never cover all aspects and may contain 'coloring' depending on who wrote it; wording will reflect what that person finds important or the goal they want to achieve.


On a Flemish level, this description is used; “research integrity describes an attitude of researchers and those involved in research whereby they conduct their research according to appropriate ethical, legal and professional frameworks, obligations and standards. It describes an approach for organizing and conducting responsible scientific and scholarly work. Because of this it is inherently part of the quality assurance of daily research practice and it's results.” (Mind the GAP, VLIR online training tool on RI)

How do we know what is integer?

Integer behaviour in research is guided by values (= ideals in a community) and norms (=concrete action guiding rules). These can be found in a code of conduct.


The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, or the ALLEA code, helps researchers realize their professional responsibility. As Ghent University signed this in 2018, it is thé leading document for our researcher community.

There are 4 'principles' in research (= central values):

  • Reliability,
  • Honesty,
  • Respect
  • and Accountability.

The ALLEA code translates these principles into more concrete norms aligned with daily research practice e.g. “authors acknowledge important work and intellectual contributions of others”. This way, researchers can adjust their behaviour accordingly.


No matter how concrete a code of conduct tries to be, there will always be room for addition and interpretation. Although the number of principles in ALLEA is limited to four, additional values can be identified, each reducing it to one of the four principles in the ALLEA code. Taking the normative example above, one might ask what is considered an 'intellectual contribution'. Reality is dynamic and cannot be easily defined in a few lines. For this reason, other actors in the field, such as disciplinary organizations, journals, universities/faculties, etc. can have additional guidelines translating the ALLEA norms to their specific context e.g. in relation to the example on coauthorship, ICMJE. Obviously, these additional guidelines need to be in line with the ALLEA code at all times. If this is not the case, alignment with the ALLEA code is primordial. Research experience and a well-developed moral compass will remain crucial to properly assess the direction of values and to act accordingly.

This entire process of determining values, setting norms and putting all aspects from the concept ‘research integrity’ into practice, is what we call RCR – responsible conduct of research.

Good, bad and other unacceptable practices

Our research behaviour can be put on a continuum. On the one side of the spectrum, we find the ‘good research practices’. On the other extreme, we find a couple of research practices of which there is agreement within the community, that they are ‘bad’ or unacceptable. In the middle there is a grey zone where we find behaviour that is not straightforward ‘good’ and the circumstances will determine how ‘bad’ it is.


The spectrum is clearly linked to research quality. Unacceptable research practices compromise or undermine the research quality: they result in research that is unreliable or less reliable, and can’t be trusted or can be trusted less.

Challenges coming from ALLEA


There’s no clear-cut definition of research integrity, nor do we have a list of 'does and don’ts' that apply for all researchers, in all research circumstances. Some behaviour will always be acceptable or always be unacceptable, but quite often the values and norms need to be translated and adapted to each particular research situation. This makes research integrity an interesting area to reflect upon, but for some researchers it is very challenging that research integrity often is more about interpretation and appreciation – about making choices within a certain framework. Research integrity is all about being able to reflect in a critical way on one’s own research behaviour and on the behaviour of others.

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Last modified Oct. 12, 2021, 8:06 p.m.