The 'Re-s' or Responsible Research
As the holiday break came to a close I faced the realization that I still needed to define a topic for this month's contribution to Scholarly Messenger. As I sat reviewing topics that were recently addressed, while watching all the "year in review" news reports for 2012, I got to thinking about all the "re-"s associated with our lives but more specifically, academics and research. Although review is one of the biggest "re-"s, we also reanalyze, rewrite, rethink, renew, refresh and remind. I'm pretty sure that with a bit of effort, I will be able to find additional "re-"s. However, when it comes to planning ethics and responsible research training, common criticisms include statement like: "I've already heard that," "we've already covered that in a seminar," "my students already know that." With regard to ethics and responsible research training, students, staff and faculty often forget the need for "re-"s for thorough information consolidation and integration.
So, let's discuss the frequency of "re-"s in academic life. A major one is: review. We review articles, literature, notes to develop new ideas. We review data and methods to build on previous projects. When we write, we are constantly referring back to a well read and heavily noted pile of manuscripts. And, I am sure we all have a favorite author, original research study or review article that we have reviewed again and again, in whole or part, for critical information, inspiration or enthusiasm. However, review is not the only "re-." We renew ideas, rethink hypotheses, refresh our knowledge, and remind ourselves of procedure details. Graduate students and postdocs remind themselves why they decided to pursue a graduate degree and/or remain in academics rather than move on to industry. Similar to all the "re-"s in our immediate academic pursuits, responsible research also needs to be reviewed, rethought, renewed refreshed and reminded. In fact, reminding is one of my primary goals with regard to my work in RCR training. So, why do we need all these "re-"s for Responsible Research training, other than the two that are critical for pronunciation? First, in an atmosphere of constant pressure to produce, regular reminders of ethical and responsible research practice are a healthy influence on daily decisions. But also, the university community is in a constant state of change. Intellectual pursuits, infrastructure, technology and even people are constantly changing and growing. Individuals in the population change but so do the challenges faced by the static population. Regular reviews are therefore important for new, current and senior members of the community. The new population, of course, needs to learn about responsible research for the first time. They need to learn that there are standards of practices and violation of these standards can have career devastating and even legal consequences. Every semester we have a new population on campus, so every semester the basic information needs to be available to that population.
As for the current population, senior graduate student and postdocs can be the most challenging. Most of them think they know everything about research ethics. They sigh and roll their eyes in frustration as they attend seminars or do online training when they already have extremely busy schedules with coursework, research and sometimes teaching. What they don't realize is that their context is changing. Their career, intellectual goals and pressures are evolving and thus the application and complexity of responsible research is also changing. They are learning that data processing and analyses are not always one size fits all and as such they have to choose which analyses to apply to a data set. They are learning that research practice can be redundant and it is tempting to cut corners. Their research may be progressing to new technology and possibly involvement in patent development and as such they are now facing issues of conflict of interest and commitment. Conflict of interest (COI) is an intricate and complex area of responsible research training and it is seldom faced by new students. As such, this parameter of training is seldom pondered in depth by young researchers. However, a complex and productive career can make it a central issue and ignorance to the parameters of COI can devastate one's life and career. Therefore, as education and careers progress, differing areas of responsible research become more or less applicable and as such they should even be reviewed by senior members of the community.
Every course that I ever took as an undergraduate or graduate student started with a review of simple foundation information. However, in all cases, as my knowledge grew, I realized that there was nothing simple about that information. Rather, the reviewed information was central to an intricate web of information and as such it had to be reviewed in the context of the course focus and complexity. The "re-" was central to understanding that complexity. Responsible research training is no different than review of any other foundational information. In its simplest form RCR training is a list of "do's and do not's." However when you ponder how to apply that foundation to a career growing in complexity, you find that it also is central to that web. Therefore, to be effectively integrated in your career and research, RCR needs to be reviewed, rethought, refreshed and reminded. Yes, many of the "re-"s in academics can be frustrating and mind numbing. But we cannot eliminate them from our training or thinking. So as career pressure increases, rather than pondering how to maximize productivity to address increasing pressure, ponder how to how to responsibly maximize productivity to address increasing pressure with integrity. And review as needed.
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.