Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
The Logic of Responsible Conduct of Research Training
By Marianne Evola

I thought that I would spend a bit of time this month discussing Texas Tech’s Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training and the logic behind the training requirements. Although this is a bit of a dry topic, it is a topic that I spend a great deal of time discussing with trainees. So, I thought that I would utilize this month’s contribution to Scholarly Messenger to explain how our office works with students and mentors so that RCR trainees can meet training requirements. Contrary to the beliefs of grumpy students, the RCR training program is not merely a bunch of busy work and ridiculous requirements to keep administrative staff employed. Yes, some trainees have grumbled very similar words to me, but I was once a graduate student and similarly grumbled about training compliance. RCR training is mandated by our research sponsors and the America COMPETES Act, enacted by the federal government. More importantly, however, our primary goals are to promote an active campus-wide conversation on ethics and safety in scholarship to help Texas Tech researchers integrate ethics and safety into their daily decision-making. Finally, contrary to the many assertions that “everybody already knows this,” our ongoing communication with students has provided an abundance of evidence that many students do not understand research ethics nor do they embrace the importance of ethics in research.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Texas Tech RCR program, there are three required components to RCR training:
  1. Safety training
  2. Online ethics training and
  3. Individualized or “face-to-face” training.
The first component requires all trainees to complete some type of safety training. Being aware of the hazards in your work environment so that you can appropriately avoid and/or handle potential hazards is a critical part of responsible research and scholarship. I get a lot of emails from new RCR trainees requesting to be exempt from safety training because they do not feel that safety applies to their work since they do not work in a lab setting, but rather sit at a computer all day. These emails only further demonstrate to our office that safety training is a critical requirement because when students declare that there are no hazards in their environment, it is clear that they are unaware of the hazards that surround them on a university campus.

Safety training does not just apply to students working in labs or studios, because all across campus there are biological, chemical, radiation and physical hazards. Merely cutting through a building on a cold day or running an errand for a supervisor might expose you to hazardous machinery, or to biological or chemical hazards from labs. And even if personnel have rudimentary understanding of hazards associated with research and engineering labs, very few people, myself included, realize the numerous hazards that may be present in art studios or theater productions. It is, therefore, critical that you are aware of the many hazards housed on a university campus. Furthermore, it is important that you can read and interpret the “hazard” signs that are posted on doors so that you do not accidently find yourself in a dangerous environment with no training on how to safely navigate that environment. Rudimentary safety training raises student awareness to the hazards that are housed on campus. As for RCR training, the safety training requirement can be met by completion of the online safety training modules provided by Texas Tech’s Environmental Health and Safety website or by a mentor “declaring” that trainees have received appropriate safety training by the lab manager or department. However, mentors who utilize this latter option are encouraged to raise students’ awareness to hazards on campus that may not apply to their discipline.

The second component of RCR training is the online ethics training, for which we utilize the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) created at the University of Miami. We chose the CITI modules because they provide RCR trainees with a broad understanding of all of the parameters of ethics in research and scholarship. To meet the requirement, students must complete one of the discipline-specific RCR courses provided by CITI. The discipline-specific options include RCR training for biomedical sciences, social and behavioral sciences, physical sciences, engineering, and the arts and humanities, as well as training for administrative personnel. Each of these courses provides discipline-specific training and examples while addressing ethical issues such as plagiarism, conflict of interest, authorship and publishing, mentoring and collaboration, data management and analysis, social responsibility, and research with human or animal subjects. The strengths of the online ethics training are that it provides students with broad exposure to critical areas of ethics and it serves as a good informational resource for future reference. However, similar to many online training courses, there is limited information about whether individuals who complete the CITI training will either retain what they learn or integrate the information into their daily decision-making. Based on my own experience as a graduate student, I expect that some students may want to cover the material as quickly as possible so that they can pass the tests with little contemplation of difficult ethical issues. Graduate and honors students especially might have the talent to pass tests while “learning” very little from online training. Because of this limitation, the Texas Tech RCR program requires a final individualized or face-to-face training component.

This third face-to-face training component provides individual instruction in an interactive manner that is designed to provide regular reminders of responsible research as well as to promote a deeper understanding of scholarly ethics so that trainees integrate ethical decision-making into daily scholarly activities. It is also the most complex component of RCR training at Texas Tech. The face-to-face training component can be met in two ways. The first is very straightforward: trainees can complete a semester-long approved course in ethics. Philosophy (PHIL 5125), engineering (ENG 4392/5392), natural resource management (NRM 6002) and business management (MGT 5372) have approved courses. Many students choose this route because once they complete the course they are permanently finished with face-to-face RCR training. However, I should note that if students choose this route, they are responsible for coursework and the tuition.

For students that do not want to pay tuition to meet the face-to-face training requirement or students who are not on campus to take an ethics course, the second option is ongoing participation in seminars, workshops and discussions on ethics. Referring to this latter form of face-to-face training is actually a misnomer for many trainees and may better be referred to as personalized training. This type of training is highly variable due to the varied circumstances of our Texas Tech trainees. Many trainees conduct field research and reside in another part of the country or in another part of the world for long periods. Other trainees are undergraduate students with full schedules of coursework that prevent them from attending scheduled seminars and conferences. Finally, there are trainees who work with mentors devoted to educating their students on responsible research and ethics. Therefore, due to the varied circumstances faced by our trainees, we created a flexible form of personalized training to meet requirements.

The key requirements for personalized training are that trainees need to earn six RCR credits every academic year and that to do so they must demonstrate attention to and application of acquired information. This is done by writing and submitting summaries of training events to our office, and more specifically, to me. Generally, six summaries are equivalent to six RCR credits. I read all of the summaries and provide feedback to trainees. I also require students to rewrite very poor summaries. When I started working on the training program, I was surprised by the numerous poor summaries that I received. Now I wonder whether the poor summaries indicate that some students have little understanding of research ethics. It could be argued that students understand ethics but are unwilling to provide clear summaries to our office. I find this difficult to accept because as a graduate student I remember being very concerned that anyone would consider me incompetent or unintelligent. It could also be argued that students are very busy and as such, they do not have time to write long summaries. However, we do not require summaries to be long. The minimum requirement is two sentences on seminar/discussion content and one to two sentences on how the information applies to their discipline. A concise summary of this type can be written in five to 10 minutes, and students are not too busy to write three to four intelligent sentences. Therefore, from my perspective, poor summaries either reflect that students do not understand the importance of responsible research and ethics, or that they do not care about responsible research and ethics. Either of these possibilities should be of great concern to the Texas Tech community. They certainly are of great concern to me and the Texas Tech RCR program.

I definitely don’t want to suggest that all the summaries are poor. Many are good; some are outstanding. In fact, there have been some trainee summaries that have helped to educate me on discipline-specific issues of ethics. These summaries have generally been submitted by students with proactive mentors focused on educating their personnel on ethics. Labs of this type often take charge of training and their trainees submit summaries of in-lab discussions. The quality of these summaries tends to be exceptional. The students absorb the importance of ethics from their mentor, and it comes across in their summaries. This type of training was proposed to our office by active mentors because they felt that the best training could be provided in the lab. We agreed, and as evidenced by trainee summaries, this type of training is very effective at getting students to contemplate ethics and how it is applied to their work.

For our students working on field research, they are not on campus and sometimes they are across the world from even their mentor. For these students we provide internet links to recorded seminars or other online seminars and/or readings on ethics. Students are required to submit summaries on what they read or watch online. I’m a little more particular on these summaries and sometimes require a bit more work because I want students to demonstrate that they watched more than the first five minutes of the online seminar. These options are also frequently provided to undergraduate students who cannot attend sponsored seminars due to their course schedules. Students tend to provide very good summaries of these events and appreciate the additional training accommodations we provide as well as detailed feedback on their summaries and ideas.

Finally, most students earn credit by attending seminars or the Annual Responsible Conduct of Research Conference sponsored by the Texas Tech Ethics Center. These are on-campus events that students must attend and also submit a summary to our office. When I started attending these events, I realized how critical the summaries were for students to integrate the seminar content. For example, during one seminar, I sat next to a student who slept through the entire presentation. After the seminar, I introduced myself to him. He was a bit embarrassed when he realized that he had slept through the entire seminar while sitting next to the Administrator for Responsible Research. Surprisingly, he submitted a summary for that seminar. Not surprisingly, it was a very poor summary that stated, “I attended ‘Title of Seminar,’ please give me credit.” I responded that I would not give him credit until he was able to demonstrate that he understood something about the presentation content, other than the title. He did not submit another summary on that seminar. Sadly, I have had other trainees submit summaries as poor as this one. Some of these are students who do not think anyone ever reads their summary for content. However, every summary is read, and students are provided feedback. I will admit, however, that there is often a time delay between summary submission and feedback due to the large and growing number of RCR trainees that utilize the personalized training option. For the most part, I feel that once students realize that someone at the Office of the Vice President for Research (Integrity) reviews their summary for content, they tend to improve the content of their summaries. However, there are trainees with whom I continue to struggle.

I hope that this description better explains the variety and logic to the RCR training program. The program has evolved since its inception to accommodate the variable environments and training conditions of our trainees, especially the personalized training option, to earn RCR credit. Although I wrote this to better describe the program, I hope that mentors realize that their students don’t know everything about responsible research and ethics, and as such, it is critical for mentors to spend time discussing the importance of these issues with their trainees.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.