Volume 5, Number 1; March 2013
Fundamentals of Scholarly and Research Integrity
Written by Kenneth D. Pimple
This paper concerns academic1, scholarly, and research integrity across the whole range, including arts and humanities, social sciences, life science, physical science, and professional areas such as law, education, medicine, and business.
I believe that I can cover this quite broad territory because the basic requirements of research and scholarly integrity in the humanities are common to all forms of academic research. Other fields have to take on additional responsibilities, but they cannot ignore any of the responsibilities faced by humanists.
Some of the responsibilities that do not generally fall onto humanists include those that come with research involving human subjects, animals, biohazards, radiation, rDNA, and other carefully regulated forms of research.
In addition, humanists typically do not use statistics, and our data are easier to manage than data in some other fields, in which data may include things that have to be kept in freezers. Most humanists do not get many grants, and certainly not big ones, nor are we usually responsible for expensive equipment like giant telescopes or particle accelerators. We generally work alone, or in pairs, or, rarely, in somewhat large groups. This is significant because many aspects of research that are straightforward when only one researcher is involved, such as assigning authorship credit, can quickly become quite vexing when three or more are working together.
I am not going to talk about any of these complicating factors, which allows me to focus on the aspects of research and scholarly integrity that cover all academic fields, even if they do not cover all of them completely.
The first definition of “integrity” in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “The condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety.” Other definitions relate integrity to words like “unimpaired,” “uncorrupted,” and “innocence.”
I sometimes take words too literally, and the use of the word integrity in a moral sense confused me for a long time. I thought of integrity as a kind of purity in which no portion was inferior or tainted. From that point of view, it makes sense to say that a bar of silver has integrity, because a bar of silver is one thing, down to the atom.
But a claim that someone’s scholarship has integrity, or that someone has integrity as a scholar—well, I just did not know what it could mean. It has been my observation that no one is morally pure clear through or perfectly morally consistent. We all embody multiple contradictions, and we all have goals, roles, desires, and even needs that compete against each other—and they sometimes undermine each other.
Recently it occurred to me to think of integrity in terms of systems rather than things. By “system,” I do not mean anything more profound than a bunch of components working together toward a common end.
This is illustrated in a lovely passage in T. H. White’s The Book of Merlyn. King Arthur is old and facing his final battle, and Merlyn magically restores some of his youthful mental vigor. Arthur glances around his tent in astonishment, noticing things as he had as a child. The tent itself he calls “an extraordinary thing.” “Half of it is trying to push it up, and the other half is trying to pull it down” (White 1988:15).
There are three basic components of an old-fashioned tent2: The fabric, the stakes and ropes that hold it down, and the pole or poles that hold it up. The stakes, ropes, and poles are nothing like a tent without the fabric; the fabric alone resembles a tent only insofar as it can shelter you from the rain.
If a system consists of components working together toward a common end, a system with integrity is one in which the net contributions of the components, more or less efficiently, bring about the desired outcome. All three components are needed to make a tent, and they have to work together in a moderately precise way. If the pole pushes up too strongly, you get something like a flag. If the ropes pull down too effectively, you have a drop cloth. If you pitch your tent successfully but someone knocks over the central pole, the tent will dis-integrate. In a way, the components of a tent work against each other—they are literally in tension—but in a more important way, they work together.
It is a rare system that doesn’t have some components that are, or seem to be, disproportionally costly to the system. Consider again the components of a tent. If three people were designated each to carry one component, I would choose either the pole or the ropes and stakes, because the fabric is much the heaviest, or at least it was in the canvas tents I used as a kid. The fabric contributes weight as well as shelter, and if the fabric is too heavy, or absorbs water and becomes too heavy, it will break the pole. Or consider the human brain. Its value to the system called the human body is substantial, but the brain is a resource pig, requiring “about 22 times as much energy to run as the equivalent in muscle tissue” (Welsh 2011). If the human body were a country and the brain the government, some organs would certainly advocate shrinking it.
In my formulation, integrity admits of degrees. Thanks to natural selection, most living systems have nearly optimal integrity, in which every component gives as much to the system as it takes from it. Human-created systems, including social, political, and legal systems, measure change in much shorter intervals than evolution—on the order of days to decades, rather than generations to millennia—leading me to believe that human systems are probably not as efficient as natural systems.
If a system consists of components working together toward a common end, a system with integrity is one in which the net contributions of the components, more or less efficiently, bring about the desired outcome.
A person with a high degree of integrity has a number of morally praiseworthy attributes—call them virtues. She is honest; telling lies requires a disjunction between what she believes to be true and what she is asserting to be true. She is honorable; when she makes a promise or commitment, she keeps it. She is loyal; she does not discard friends or colleagues on a whim. She is sincere; she avoids hypocrisy by living up to the values she espouses and expects of others.
I am not inclined to say that all virtues are aspects of, or essential to, integrity. It seems to me that temperance, courage, prudence, and charity—to name a few—are not required for integrity.
On the other hand, the virtues that I associate with integrity should, in some cases, be subordinate to integrity. If I learn that my friend has committed a crime, I may be forced to turn him in. This would be disloyal, but I might be able to remediate the blow to my integrity by supporting him to the fullest extent possible. Virtues pursued blindly and unthinkingly are likely to become vicious.3
This kind of internal tension comes about because systems are generally embedded in other systems, and the purposes of the various systems cannot be in perfect harmony. The behavior of graduate faculty that is most helpful to graduate students is not simultaneously the most productive for the faculty themselves. Graduate students often need more attention from professors than the professors can afford to give. Yet everyone has to give a little to keep the system running.
A strong commitment to integrity can help us ignore or fail to notice options that other people might find extremely tempting. A scholar with a high degree of integrity is less likely to be tempted to cheat because his goals and the goals of the endeavor are the same; they’re congruent; they’re integrated.
When people are caught cheating on their research by, for example, fabricating data or plagiarizing another scholar’s work, they often give excuses like these: “I have to get this grant,” or “it’s the only way I can meet the deadline,” or “I’ve got to get another publication to get tenure,” or “my PI will kill me if I can’t deliver soon.”
If someone tried to justify these actions in advance to me, I might respond, “You don’t have to be a scholar to get grants. You can go get a job at a nonprofit agency; they need smart people, too. And you can meet deadlines in any line of work; why stay in one that forces you to lie? If you want to make up your data, there’s a place across campus where you might fit better—it’s called the creative writing program. If you’re determined to use other people’s material without giving credit, become a satirist instead of a plagiarist. If you want job security, cheating isn’t a very smart path to get it, and take it from me, you don’t have to be in academe to find angry bosses who need to be appeased. So what’s the point? You aren’t a scholar-researcher-scientist to meet deadlines and get grants; you are here to do research and science.”
For anyone who is truly dedicated to scholarship or science, I believe that fostering and maintaining a high degree of integrity is simple—which is not to say it is easy. Most of us recognize it when we are tempted to do something that is not right. That is the simple part. The hard part tends to be finding a right thing to do, or doing a right thing. I do not say “the” right thing, because in most cases there are several acceptable and workable options that can be discovered and implemented—admittedly with some effort, luck, and help. Acting with integrity gets easier with practice.
This understanding of integrity can, I think, be applied to scholarship in a fruitful way. There are several components of academic scholarship that work together well, but can become imbalanced. Concentration on one component can weaken the others, and perhaps change the endeavor so much that it cannot be called scholarship at all anymore.
Early in my graduate studies, I learned that a scholar is someone who makes simple things complicated, or makes complicated things simple.4
I still think it is a pretty good description. We can spend just as much time analyzing concepts like happiness, love, and sorrow as we do describing the structure of the universe. We all know what happiness is—until we start trying to define it. Then the simple becomes complicated. Contrariwise, most of us, on our own, would not even be able to start saying anything intelligent about the structure of the universe—the question is too big and complicated. The only way to tackle it is to make it simple. Scholarly success can be achieved going either direction.
I will leave “scholarship” undefined, but I am going to identify the major components of academic scholarship, its purpose, and its implicit values.
Academic scholarship has three key components: Research, teaching, and service.
This is a familiar triad. The elements are typically the criteria by which academic scholars are judged, especially when they are up for promotion or tenure. At research universities, scholars get most credit for research, less for teaching, and still less for service—perhaps 50%, 35%, and 15%, respectively.5
This way of thinking about scholarship is probably an accurate reflection of the way things are and the way they will be for the foreseeable future. It may be clear that I find it unfortunate that so many university faculty members see teaching as a burden rather than a calling or a privilege. Be that as it may, my focus is not tawdry reality—the social organization of academic scholarship—but the heart and meaning of scholarship, which requires or allows me to consider research, teaching, and service in a somewhat different, perhaps idealistic, way.
Before saying more about these three key components, I will consider the purpose of scholarship.
Aristotle’s approach to ethics is to focus on the telos of an activity—its goal, aim, or ultimate purpose. The telos of falconry, for example, is to train raptors to hunt with people. To do so, the birds must be bred or captured, kept healthy, and trained. Such work requires certain skills and knowledge, including patience, knowledge of raptor behavior, and the ability to make and repair hoods and the other objects necessary for hunting with falcons and hawks. The practice of falconry also forbids some qualities and behaviors. From what I have read, punishing the birds makes training them impossible. Thus, patience and applicable knowledge are virtues in Aristotle’s terms, and impatience and cruelty are vices. Skill in mathematics is probably neither a virtue or vice in this realm.
I suggest that the telos of scholarship is achieving or improving understanding. A large part of the pursuit of understanding is the pursuit of knowledge, of which a large part is called science—the study of the natural world.
I suggest that the telos of scholarship is achieving or improving understanding. A large part of the pursuit of understanding is the pursuit of knowledge, of which a large part is called science—the study of the natural world. Understanding is also served by careful consideration and shared deliberation, which is important to philosophy, literary studies, and the humanities in general. I tend to think that the arts and humanities are not so much the pursuit of knowledge as the pursuit of insight, wisdom, and meaning, which are all aspects of understanding.
Some might argue that the telos of scholarship, properly understood, is The Truth, one of the many concepts that have been assailed in the last few decades by deconstructionism, post-structuralism, post-modernism, and possibly other movements and theories bent on problematizing everything we take for granted. This was a grand effort in making every simple thing complicated by demonstrating that there is no such thing as truth, reality, or objectivity. Insofar as these concepts have been used as tools of power and oppression, and deconstructionism et al. were deployed against oppressive power structures, I am sympathetic to the cause. But insofar as banishing truth makes it silly to try to prove anything at all, I cannot swallow the whole package.
Still, I accept the related propositions that we humans do not have direct or certain access to truth and reality, and that objectivity, as a human mental state, is an unattainable ideal. What I do not accept is that we have to turn our backs on truth and reality just because our understanding of them will always be imperfect. This is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Sometimes philosophers, psychologists, teachers, and other tricksters use a handful of examples to show us that our senses cannot be trusted. Put a straw into a glass of water, and the straw will appear to be bent. This optical illusion does not prove that the senses are completely undependable; in fact, they stand out as shocking (when you first encounter them) because our senses are so marvelously accurate most of the time. Instances in which our senses fail us show that we should be careful of our observations, not that we should believe that all the world is illusion.
I make this detour through truth and reality to introduce a key characteristic of scholarly understanding. Scholars and scholarship seek true understanding. This means different things in different pursuits. Claims made in the humanities do not go through the same testing process as claims made by scientists, but they are tested. In science, empirical evidence is crucial; in the humanities, however, judgment, coherence, and insight play the key role in judging how closely an argument comes to true understanding. The warning signs that true understanding has not been reached are well known—bad logic, self-contradiction, factual errors, false premises, and other failures of reason or rhetoric. Perhaps this is why so much scholarship takes the negative form of demolishing existing explanations. It is much easier to identify flaws than to ensure that no flaws exist.
It may be that looking at scholarship as the pursuit of true understanding will help us look at research, teaching, and service in a somewhat less jaded way.
Research, teaching, and service
Insofar as research is the search for understanding, frequently in the form of knowledge, it is something that most people do pretty much all the time. Scholarly research, however, has three characteristics that set it apart from the “research” of everyday life, such as one might undertake before buying a new car.
Scholarly research is (a) rigorous, (b) intended for public dissemination, at least within the relevant scholarly community, and, critically, (c) the search for new knowledge or understanding. For scholars, research that does not result in new knowledge or insights is, at best, preparation for the kind of research for which we get credit.
Some of the values and virtues that guide scholarship emerge fairly clearly from this typology. In order to discover new knowledge, a scholar has to have a command of the field. You have to know what is old before you can be sure you know that what you have discovered or argued is new. You have to be exhaustive and exacting in your preparatory research. “Exacting” means, at least, keeping good notes on what you have learned so far, including accurate citations. We cite each other to show that we know the field and that our claim to originality is warranted, if not airtight, as well as to give credit where credit is due. Scholarship is often a lonely endeavor, but it is also communal; we can only do what we do because of the work that others have done before us. This is one of the reasons that service is an important component of scholarship.
To state the obvious, scholarly research must be honest. The scholarly demand on honesty includes acknowledging our debts, never making a truth claim that we believe is false, making an honest effort to find alternate explanations, and telling the whole story—acknowledging our doubts and the weaknesses in our arguments or evidence—at least insofar as the journal will allow.
The requirement for the public dissemination of scholarly research may be most clear in science. If you learn something new but do not share it, it cannot be called science, even if it is true. Going public is the only way science and scholarship can stay alive and keep developing.
This suggests why teaching is also a critical component of scholarship.
Teaching resembles publishing one’s research at least insofar as both are concerned with the dissemination of true understanding, and both are necessary for the continuation and flourishing of scholarship. Some people become scholars without being taught by other scholars, but that is doing it the hard way. Teaching also helps scholarship flourish by giving the majority of undergraduates who will never be scholars some taste of the value of scholarship. Without the support of non-scholars, academic scholarship could not long endure.
Scholarship is often a lonely endeavor, but it is also communal; we can only do what we do because of the work that others have done before us. This is one of the reasons that service is an important component of scholarship.
In addition, the processes of teaching and scholarly publication both have a tendency to improve us as scholars. Most of us know from experience that the best way to learn something is to teach it. When your work is critiqued by good reviewers, your publication, your scholarship, and your research profit.
To me, though, the most compelling reason that scholars should teach—that is, why we have some kind of moral obligation to teach and to teach well—is that it is another way of paying our debts to our own teachers and to the scholars who came before us, including those who risked and lost their lives in their quest for true understanding.
Of the scholarly triad, service is the least respected, perhaps because it is the least rewarded. Or is it the other way around?
The purpose of scholarly service is to support, correct, and improve the systems that make academic scholarship possible.
It is easier to see the scholarly obligation for some forms of service than for others. Clearly doing your share of peer review is obligatory to anyone who wants to publish in peer-reviewed journals, or who wants to get a grant; the same holds for serving on promotion and tenure committees. But there are so many opportunities to waste time in meetings that it is hard not to become cynical about the whole system. Be that as it may, insofar as scholarship is a social or communal activity, dependent on a large infrastructure, scholars must do their part.
The ideal for academic scholarship is to have these three components balanced as well as possible, working together for the good of the individual scholar, her colleagues and students, and for scholarship itself. That is scholarly integrity.
Much of my discussion has focused on telos, or purpose. At times I also spoke about practice and values. I think that the three are intimately intertwined. The purpose defines the practice, the practice implies the values, and the values enliven the purpose. For me, the most accommodating path starts with the purpose, but I suspect that a similar account to the one I have given could start with either practices or values. Perhaps the three together could be considered a calling.
There is much more to say about research integrity, but I think the account of integrity that I have outlined could be used to good effect in fields that are, in some ways, more complicated than the humanities. Scholarly integrity demands sincere efforts at research, teaching, and service, even when incentives are clearly—and, I’d say, unwisely—skewed. Being a scholar requires us to honor those to whom we are indebted, whether they be found in the distant past or an office across campus.
Integrity is most impressive when its tensions sing in harmony.
- Curzer, Howard J. In preparation. “Integrity uncluttered.”
- OED (Oxford English Dictionary). “Integrity.” http://oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/97366 (verified February 12, 2013).
- Welsh, Jennifer. 2011. “Costs of ‘expensive’ human brain still up for debate.” LiveScience (November 9). http://www.livescience.com/16953-brain-body-size-expense.html (verified February 12, 2013).
- White, T. H. 1988. The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King. University of Texas Press.
1 The qualifier “academic” will not be repeated often in this paper, but it should be clear by the outset that my focus is on university-based scholarship and research, particularly section 4 on “Research, teaching, and service.”
2 This discussion does not include recently invented high-tech tents with foldable springy circles instead of poles.
3 For this paragraph, I am indebted to Howard J. Curzer and his formulation of virtuous integrity (Curzer in preparation). Dr. Curzer is not to be held responsible for any shortcomings of this paragraph or paper.
4 Alas, I do not remember where I read this, or from whom I heard it. I do know, thanks again to Dr. Curzer (personal correspondence, February 25, 2013), that this definition was in circulation in the late 1970s.
5 But consider the battle cry of all research universities when their teaching is criticized: “Teaching and research are one in the same; they are inseparable!”
About the Author
Kenneth D. Pimple is director of Teaching Research Ethics Programs at the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions and an associate scholar at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN.
This paper is adapted from a presentation of the same name presented at Texas Tech University on April 16, 2012.