Scientific Integrity: The View From the Teaching Side

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy came down 3 years after I started my first "real job" as an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU): Teach NIH trainees about responsible conduct in research if you want to keep or ever get a training grant. At the time, I was a rookie to graduate training. In fact, the last person I had trained was myself. I definitely had a few things to learn, and, being the newest kid on the departmental block, I got tapped on the shoulder to be the representative from Cell Biology and Anatomy on the Graduate Council, which oversees graduate studies at OHSU.

It was in one of the Graduate Council meetings that Chris Cunningham, a professor in the Department of Medical Psychology (now known as Behavioral Neuroscience), broached the topic of "The Policy." Chris had a stake in this--he had a training grant, but the rest of us didn't. Of course, we all nodded knowingly when he explained that starting next fall term we had better get something in place. But the first Rule of Academics is, "If you bring it up, you do it." Thus, it was up to Chris to organize the course. Feeling sorry for him (remember, I was a rookie), I volunteered to help, as did Chuck Roselli, associate professor of physiology. So, there we were, the Three Musketeers venturing into unknown territory!

I tried to reflect on my past training experience in scientific integrity. Had anyone during my combined 11 years of graduate and postdoctoral training EVER tried to teach me about responsible scientific conduct? We learned by the Golden Rules: Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't plagiarize. You will get in trouble if you do. Besides, didn't I learn this basic stuff in grammar school?

I wondered how we could get the ethics message across to trainees without being too maternal. The biggest turnoff is listening to someone who sounds suspiciously like your mother lecturing you on how to be responsible about your research. The Graduate Council decided that we needed a captive audience, so we chose to capture every single graduate student in the School of Medicine at OHSU by requiring successful completion of this course in order to advance to candidacy. After all, why should just the students on training grants be singled out? Everyone else was doing research, too, and scientific integrity is important stuff. It has to go into permanent memory. Our course was called "Principles in the Conduct and Practice of Science" and it ran 1 hour per week for one term.

In the summer of 1990, Chris, Chuck, and I went to work lining up the topics: professional standards, lab safety, animal and human research, research funding, and scientific careers. The first session of the course ran that fall. We felt that the best way for students to internalize scientific integrity was to discuss cases. As a part of the course, we each led a discussion session on a topic and got a faculty panel together to discuss the issues. We scheduled three course sessions for two discussions each. We "randomly" picked four faculty members, trying carefully to select a variety of scientific expertise as well as differences in level of experience. Each discussion centered on a fictional scenario, with the faculty members describing how they would respond to the situation. To our dismay, the students sat and the faculty spoke. Not good. No one wanted to question the opinions of the faculty. Judging from the glazed looks on the students' faces, the discussion wasn't even going in one ear. It was bouncing off their foreheads!

After several years of trying out faculty panels, we decided to draft students into discussing cases. Maybe if their peers talked, the rest of the audience would listen. For example, we randomly assigned students to be part of a panel of four, gave them a scenario, and asked them probing questions like, "Would you eliminate this funny looking data point?" And each student on the panel would dutifully say, "I would never eliminate a stray data point." End of conversation. Occasionally a group would actually argue with one another, but there wasn't nearly enough audience participation. We looked at the audience. The message was actually going in one ear now, but we could see it dribbling out of the other ear. They left with the same message they learned in grammar school. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't plagiarize. Had we given them enough feel for the "gray" areas? Did they know that under some circumstances you can justify the elimination of a data point?

Eight years after we started teaching the ethics course, Chris tossed a flier across my desk, "Teaching Survival Skills and Ethics." Hey--the workshop sounded good. Chris and I definitely needed new ideas! (Chuck had conveniently exited teaching the course the previous year.) And, besides, it was in Copper Mountain, Colorado.

The coordinators of the workshop, Michael Zigmond and Beth Fischer, from the University of Pittsburgh, were wonderful. They verbalized and formalized all sorts of stuff I had tried to organize in my own head for my own trainees. Now, we had a mechanism for getting this to our class. On top of that, Zigmond and Fischer gave us new ways to discuss cases. I got so excited that, on the last evening of the workshop, I stayed up until past midnight reorganizing the OHSU ethics course. When I showed Chris my plan for the reorganized course, his eyes twinkled. On the spot, he made me the director of the course, and handed the reins over to me. (I think he'd been waiting a long time for that moment!)

In the fall of 1999, I launched our new course, "Practice and Ethics of Science." It was totally "Zigmondized." We increased the length of the course to 2 hours per week. We tried to bring the ethics to the students in the context of survival skills. What does that mean? Well, for example, when we talked about "data collection" we told the class "how to keep a lab notebook" but we also discussed "data selection" and "ownership of data." We added a session on "dealing with stress." We brought in cases to talk about for practically every session. We did away with the panels. Now we try to involve the whole group.

After 2 years of our newly designed course, we have succeeded in getting a few more things into one ear, and they appear to sticking for at least one term (although I wouldn't vouch for whether they're in the cortex or just lying around in the cerebellum). We have had tremendous highs: "Great lecture! Time flew!"; "As usual, the discussion part was the best"; and one student actually came back to the course after initially dropping it when he heard we were having "awesome" discussions. But also horrible lows: "I like your earrings"; "This class makes me seriously doubt wanting to continue with science."

We're getting there, but the course is far from perfect. Some say we include too many survival skills. Others say we have too much ethics. We need to have smaller discussion groups, but neither of us have time to draft and train our colleagues about discussions. But we will continue to work things out because Responsible Conduct in Research is far too important--it must become internalized in every researcher's head.

On 30 July 2001, Rae Nishi will be abandoning Chris Cunningham and OHSU to move to the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. She plans to set up a survival skills and ethics course for grad students at UVM.

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