Texas Tech University
Scholarly Messenger
Defining Responsible Conduct of Research
by Marianne Evola

In the past few years as I have grown in my training role for Responsible Research Conduct, my understanding of responsible research has evolved and broadened. When I started working in this area, I interchangeably used the phrases research integrity, research misconduct, research ethics and responsible research and largely thought of the phrases as synonymous. Since that time, I have realized that the umbrella of responsible research encompasses integrity, misconduct and ethics. Furthermore, I’ve realized the responsible research umbrella is even larger because critical research skills such as safety in research, responsible data management, appropriate use of statistics and even stress and time management are encompassed in responsible research education. In other words, responsible research education that is limited to recognizing misconduct or knowing right from wrong is insufficient. Responsible research education must include education on skill sets that enable young researchers to make good daily decisions while under pressure to produce.

Like many of my trainees, when I began to study responsible research, I was engrossed in the study of scandalous incidents of misconduct. When I present to student groups, I do talk about case studies of misconduct and it is clear when the presentation moves to the misdeeds of our fallen colleagues, students are engaged and attentive. Case studies are great for getting students to engage in your presentation. However, case studies are merely examples of what not to be and they provide little information on how to be an effective and successful scientist. Although it is critical that all students understand the definitions of misconduct so that they can protect themselves from poor research environments and avoid career damaging decisions, the study of responsible research conduct is not limited to the study of misconduct.

Similarly, the study of research ethics is an important component of responsible research training. It is important to consider what makes a decision right or wrong. However, in my opinion, without skill development, ethical dilemmas can seem insurmountable. It is skill development that provides you with a realm of options when addressing an ethical decision so that you face fewer “lose-lose” situations. For example, one of the greatest lessons of time/stress management that I learned in graduate school was the importance of team building and personnel management. While conducting the experiments for my master’s thesis, I was conducting a series of experiments where animals needed to be tested once per week until they demonstrated full recovery from a drug treatment. I had predicted that they would recover in about two weeks and planned a much-needed vacation at the end of the experiments and purchased my airline tickets. Unfortunately, after two weeks of testing, my rats had not fully recovered from the experimental treatment, which meant I was faced with the decision to abandon the experiments or abandon my vacation. Luckily, our lab stressed teamwork for long-term projects and I had contributed to the work of my lab mates on many occasions. So, rather than being limited to two bad decisions, either 1) abandoning the experiments and wasting lab resources or, 2) abandoning my vacation and wasting personal resources as well as losing the opportunity to alleviate stress, the mentoring of teamwork provided me with knowledge and skills that enabled me to integrate the research team into my experiments. As such, other members of the team were able to cover my work when I could not be in the lab. As such, my experiments continued in my absence and I got a much needed break from the stressors of graduate school. Had the lab not stressed teamwork, my lab mates would not have had the training to conduct my experiments and I would have been left with two bad choices. The skills of working with a team provided me with a better alternative.

In the example above, my mentor provided me with the skills that I needed to responsibly address an ethical dilemma. However, sometimes mentors either do not have the skills to provide guidance as their students become independent in their research, or due to the great many demands on their time, mentors fail to realize that they have not provided sufficient instruction for their students to make informed decisions. Furthermore, sometimes students fail to turn to their mentor when they are encountering problems because they feel that they should figure it out alone. During my graduate training, my mentor and my required coursework provided excellent guidance on statistical training, as well as thorough training on the humane use of animals in research and addressing safety hazards in the lab. In fact, regarding safety, anyone leaving uncapped hypodermic needles in any area of the lab would face the wrath of our very vigilant lab manager. In contrast, I don’t remember there ever being a lab meeting devoted to the importance of stress management. Yet, persons found guilty of misconduct often attribute their bad choices and behavior to pressure and stress.

Like most graduate students, I was mentored to become an independent researcher. As such, there was an expectation that I would ultimately address challenges independently. As my research and status in the lab progressed, gradually the structure that I was provided in my early training could not address the new data sets and quantitative analyses that were naturally contained in new research questions. And, as a senior member of the team, I was appropriately expected to figure out how to proceed on my own. Furthermore, as a measure of accountability, I was expected to defend my decisions by teaching my new techniques to the research group. This type of mentoring is, in my opinion, the most valuable aspect of graduate training and at times it is the most frustrating. I had many lessons on how to stumble and fail, critical lessons in research. However, ultimately it taught me how to seek out resources that could provide me with critical skills and information.

Luckily, there is an active responsible research culture on the TTU campus and opportunities to engage in training in critical skill development continue to increase. This culture and the training opportunities they provide can address some of the challenges students and their mentors face as students evolve toward independent study. However, it is not enough to offer training. Students need to familiarize themselves with the resources that are available across campus and take the time to attend training seminars. There are many resources across the TTU campus that can provide students with education and assistance, but this sometimes requires students to look outside their laboratory, department or required coursework. I encourage students to pay attention to the many training opportunities that are posted on Tech Announce each day and attend these seminars and workshops.

As stated above, understanding misconduct and research ethics is critical and RCR training programs will always address these issues. However, attending to education and resource information regarding critical skill development provides students with an array of options when they face ethical challenges and enhances the efficacy of their research.

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.