Cultural Differences and Knowledge about Responsible Research Conduct
By Marianne Evola
At the beginning of May, I attended the World Conference on Research Integrity
in Montreal. Therefore, although I’m in the middle of a series of articles on data management, I’ve decided to break from that series and share thoughts and information inspired by the conference. The meeting was inspiring because participants rightly acknowledged that cultural diversity is one of the greatest strengths of the academic world but also admitted that this diversity creates confusion due to notable differences in cultural practices in education. As such, researchers and university administrators from across the world attended this meeting to discuss those differences, work toward a consensus to define the parameters of research integrity while contemplating cultural contributions that can better research practice.
Discussing cultural differences can be a difficult and sensitive topic. Culture is so complex and diverse that as an American, I can barely claim expertise in a subset of my own culture. Therefore, asserting knowledge about the complexity of foreign cultures can only serve to demonstrate ignorance or prove offensive by misinterpreting, generalizing or simplifying cultural practices. Therefore, although I will address cultural differences and challenges that were raised at the meeting, I will not be tying these challenges to specific cultures. In other words, my goal, and the goal of the World Conference, is to unify through discussion rather than divide through labeling.
The international nature of higher education became clear to me as an undergraduate. For the first time in my life I had to struggle to communicate with foreign-born professors and graduate teaching assistants. Furthermore, it was my responsibility to seek additional help from those instructors if I were to succeed in my courses. During those early struggles, I learned that my instructors and professors also realized that there was a challenge to communication, and most were very interested in working with students to overcome that communication barrier. Over the years, I have seen a bit of “foot stomping” by American undergrads struggling to communicate with their foreign-born instructors. However, it is fun to watch students mature to realize that their foreign instructors have a lot to contribute to their education due to notably different experiences in education and life. For students that continue with graduate studies, they find that their peers and professors come from markedly different cultural backgrounds, and their academic community is rich with cultural diversity.
Cultural diversity is one of the greatest attributes and contributions of the academic world. As a model, this international community demonstrates that cultural differences can be set aside for academic progress. However, even in this progressive community, cultural differences can create difficulties. Often, these difficulties arise due to poor communication and awareness of cultural differences. It is human nature to think that everyone thinks the same way as you. We have all grown up in cultures where our similarities outweigh our differences. Up until modern times, humans did not venture away from the familiar. Therefore, when faced with different cultures, our differences are not always intuitive or recognized. Furthermore, because of the sensitive nature of discussing cultural differences, these issues are often not addressed, which sets the stage for miscommunication and conflict. With regard to research ethics, mentors often assume that their students are fully aware and fully trained on research ethics and integrity. They fail to consider that a student’s background may have provided them with qualitatively different training on practices and policies, as well as quantitatively different emphasis on the importance of ethical issues in research. Therefore, one of the challenges to training students is that mentors sometimes minimize the importance of academic ethics training because they assume that their students have received training, and hence, students also minimize the importance of ethics training because they are following the lead of their mentor.
Notable differences in ethics training have become evident to me in my work with mandatory Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) training. Students that are engaged in RCR training are required to regularly generate and submit content summaries on seminar or workshop events that they have attended. In several of these summaries, I have had students state that “these issues are not important in my culture” or something similar. I should clarify that in most cases the students are not dismissing the issues as unimportant, but rather are explaining that there has been little or no emphasis on these issues in their training up until now. In fact, I had one student come to my office to discuss how she could implement research ethics training when she graduated and returned home to pursue her academic career. Therefore, faculty and students need to be aware that cultural differences in academic ethics training exist and failing to address these differences can negatively impact their career development. Specifically, faculty need to be aware that because training in research ethics widely differs across cultures, inappropriate decisions by uninformed trainees could impact the mentor’s career. Students need to be aware that scholarly ethics and integrity are critical issues in many cultures where they may choose to build a career. As such, dismissing the research ethics in that culture may serve to destroy their career. Finally, the culturally diverse participation at the World Conference on Research Ethics demonstrates that an ethics “culture” is growing universally in research and scholarship. As such, stating that “these issues are not important in my culture” may be an uninformed and/or dated assertion.
Intellectual Property Differences
One major cultural difference that leads to confusion in research integrity is the concept of intellectual property as opposed to communal sharing of knowledge. Specifically, these issues frequently arise in incidents of plagiarism. Actually, it was a conference presentation by Michael Zigmond (2013) that finally clarified to me why plagiarism is a difficult concept for some students. As an American student, I was taught to write papers and answer questions “in your own words.” In fact, I was taught that I did not really understand a concept until I was able to paraphrase it. Furthermore, I was taught that the words and ideas of other people were their “intellectual property,” and as such, if I borrowed or built on those ideas, I needed to respect their contribution through citation and/or formal quotation. Failing to appropriately cite or quote the contribution of others was, in fact, theft of their intellectual property. This approach to education is far from universal. In fact, there are many educational systems that are based on memorization. Students are required to memorize from their textbooks or lecture notes and recite that text verbatim during class assignments and examinations. Students are not encouraged to paraphrase because it is disrespectful to assert that you could improve the work of the original creator of the words and ideas. Furthermore, intellectual contributions are considered communal property rather than individual property.
The conference raised my awareness to educational systems based on memorization and how this could impact incidents of plagiarism. Actually, this issue explains a conflict that I had with a foreign instructor during graduate school. The course was a team-taught seminar, so faculty taught and tested only their area of specialization. I really enjoyed the course and thought I was mastering the information, so I was shocked to receive a very poor grade on the second exam after having received the high score on the first exam. Upon reviewing my exam paper, I did not understand why I had lost so many points on my answers. Following a gentle inquiry with my peers, I found that they were similarly confused with their test performance. So, we individually approached the professor to discuss our grade. At the end of our meetings, we all came away with the same consensus. We had lost points because we had not recited the professor’s words back to him. This was confusing to students that had been trained to “answer in your own words.”
To this day, I am a bit bitter about that exam grade even though I understand how cultural differences in educational practice led to the conflict. In comparison, I would expect similar frustration and confusion from students shifting to a system that requires them to paraphrase, when they have been trained to memorize and recite. Furthermore, for some students facing this challenge, not only would they be paraphrasing information for the first time, they would also be paraphrasing in a second language. However, just as I had to bitterly learn to recite information back to that professor to raise my grade, students trained in memorization/recitation must learn how to appropriately paraphrase and cite the work of others. In other words, cultural and educational differences do not excuse students from addressing the challenges of working and studying in a different education system. Rather, these differences should be discussed to best reveal where challenges exist so that mentors can provide students with necessary information to avoid problems and maximize success.
In conclusion, a “culture” of academic ethics is evolving worldwide in response to our need to collaborate for academic and scientific progress. Cross-culturally, we are addressing issues of intellectual property, “best practices” for research, responsible research and ethics education, and research and scholarly misconduct. Some cultures are ahead of others with regard to defining the parameters of research conduct and misconduct as well as disseminating that information to university students, staff and faculty. However, the trend is clear that most cultures see the need to improve research integrity and ethics education in their scholars and researchers.
Finally, I thought it would be beneficial to list some basic reminders and recommendations for addressing cultural differences in academic settings:
1) Do not assume that students and colleagues from other cultures have the same responsible research conduct training as you. If trainees assert that they understand rules and policies regarding responsible research conduct, ask them to explain the parameters of research ethics and misconduct. For example, ask students to describe plagiarism, paraphrasing, and appropriate use of quotation and citation. Do not merely ask them if they understand. It is my experience that overachieving undergrad and graduate students seldom admit that they lack understanding.
2) Students should seek clarification for ethical issues that are vague or for those which have never seemed important in their culture. Feel free to e-mail the
Office of Research Integrity for information and/or resources. I’m happy to discuss these important issues with students. Remember, students need to be aware of the ethical “rules” of the culture in which they are studying and building a career. Ignorance of the rules can result in “accidental” misconduct that can have negative impact on the entire research group.
3) Participate in the RCR training program. Even students that are not required to participate in training can benefit from helpful training and healthy reminders of good research practice (contact the Office of Research Integrity at the e-mail above).
4) Most students and postdocs that are found guilty of misconduct give one of two excuses for their action:
- they did not know that their actions were wrong, or
- they felt pressured into producing a particular result or amount of work.
TTU’s RCR training addresses both of these issues. First, it provides education on the “rules” of research and scholarship. Second, by requiring students to engage in training throughout their education, the training provides healthy reminders of good research practice that may prevent a student from making a poor decision while under pressure.
5) Finally, faculty should mentor the importance of ethical training and contemplation of ethics in daily research practice. Students value and engage in practices that a mentor deems important. Mentors that discourage ethics training should consider whether their students are learning to disregard basic ethical principles in their daily research activities.
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.