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Responsible research guidelines for the global scientist

These days, most scientists cross borders in one way or another. Many young scientists seek research training and experience abroad. Principal investigators (PIs) lead labs with members from diverse nationalities and cultures. Researchers do their work within international collaborations or use scientific facilities abroad. Other times, the boundaries are disciplinary: Researchers harness scientific tools from other disciplines or partner with scientists in other fields to tackle a complex problem. But there are some boundaries that scientists should never cross: the ethical ones.

However, standards and practices of research conduct can vary between countries, institutes, and disciplines—sometimes creating confusion. To help young researchers and their supervisors implement the best research practices wherever they are, the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global network of science and medical academies, has just published a new guide, Doing Global Science: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise. The book also offers some guidance on how scientists should approach international collaborations where different research cultures, societal attitudes, and ethical regulations and procedures may clash.

Conducting research responsibly

Several problematic practices that the book warns against and which, according to Indira Nath, the co-chair of the committee that wrote the report, young scientists tend to overlook occur at the publication level. For example, when reporting their work, researchers must refrain from discarding outlying data or altering images to emphasize some aspects, as “such actions violate researchers’ fundamental obligation to produce reliable and objective results,” the guide states. “To smoothen results so that the final product looks ‘pretty’ is [a] common error” among young scientists, explains Nath, who is the former head of the Department of Biotechnology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, in an email to Science Careers.

Indira Nath

Indira Nath

Courtesy of Indira Nath

Furthermore, “some young researchers are not aware of … what constitutes plagiarism,” Nath adds. “Due to the free information available on the internet[,] they tend to ‘cut and paste’ without realising that they need to give the website URL or the reference if they are looking at papers.” Young scientists sometimes also neglect to give credit to others who helped with the work, she adds. In addition, the guide states, researchers have the “obligation to keep clear, accurate, and secure records of their research data and of corresponding primary material so that their work can be verified or replicated by others.” The book also urges researchers not to publish the same work in more than one journal or to slice it into several papers to increase their publication count, because doing so is an improper use of reviewers and editors’ time and dilutes the value of the scientific literature.

Another important standard that young scientists should be more diligent about is getting appropriate informed consent from patients and other research subjects, Nath says. Scientists need to ensure that the subjects receive sufficient detailed information about the pros and cons of the research and their participation in the clinical trial, especially if they are not fully literate or may be afraid that they could be denied treatment should they refuse to give consent, Nath explains. The book highlights international efforts to set legal and ethical rules for the protection of human subjects, which young scientists could then consult.

The guide also highlights many other responsibilities of scientists, including minimizing the risks of their research both within the lab and beyond and anticipating their work’s potential impacts on society. “Researchers need to participate in discussions about the possible consequences of their work” and “are responsible for participating in the creation of institutions and practices to address the possible risks of existing and emerging technologies,” the guide states. Furthermore, the book encourages scientists to refrain from putting undue strain onto the scientific community’s resources. “When researchers ask multiple funders to support a project, they have a duty to notify these funders, since failure to do so is deceptive and could put a strain on the resources available for reviewing.”

Ethics beyond borders

Navigating ethical issues is often trickier for researchers as they cross national borders. As the guide warns, “[w]ith research involving international collaborators, legal, social, and cultural differences may lead to disputes over whether someone has acted irresponsibly” in the course of a project.

The guide states that researchers who are invited to work with a research group abroad should abide by the rules of conduct in the host country. As they plan their move, students and postdocs “should familiarise themselves with the regulations in the discipline in that country” by looking at relevant websites, seeking information from mentors, or even getting in touch with the local consulate, Nath suggests. Mentors and host institutions have an important role to play in helping them settle in, she adds. Students and “postdocs [who] come from different cultures should be exposed to the good practices before they start work, so that they are in tune with the rest of the team,” she writes. Then, “proactive measures need to be used to ensure that they have interpreted the practices to be followed in an appropriate manner.”

PIs of collaborative projects should spell out the standards, regulations, authorship, [and] ethics issues at the start of the project.

—Indira Nath

The situation is all the more complex in international collaborations where countries may have different, and sometimes contradictory, values and practices. “PIs of collaborative projects should spell out the standards, regulations, authorship, [and] ethics issues at the start of the project, so that there is written agreement as to what is acceptable and in tune with the requirements of the countries involved and that of the disciplines,” Nath writes. “Periodic monitoring of each others' laboratories may also be part of the agreement.” Additionally, PIs need to agree on how they will share research materials and raw or processed data, and they need to discuss potential issues such as intellectual property or the misuse of the learned skills and technologies for harmful purposes, the book adds.

Nicholas H. Steneck

Nicholas H. Steneck

Courtesy of Nicholas H. Steneck

Young scientists should also be prepared to meet varying expectations and practices as they cross disciplines. In particular, who qualifies as an author and in which order authors should appear on a scientific paper often differ by field. “Before starting the research project find out about the good practices/regulations that cover the discipline,” Nath recommends. Both Nath and the guide highlight the importance of finding a good mentor who can help you learn these things. Also, “[i]nstitutions should ensure that in addition to laboratory methodology the young researchers are … made to undergo training in the relevant standards and regulations” and learn the value system that applies to their field, Nath adds.

A piece of the puzzle

“I certainly can see some benefit in research groups having this book as a common reference for discussing research responsibilities,” writes Nicholas H. Steneck, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who works as an independent research integrity consultant, in an email to Science Careers. But the next “global challenge [is] to put works such as this to good and effective use,” adds Steneck, who wrote the Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research for the U.S. Office of Research Integrity in 2007. The IAP guide lacks specific advice and “leaves a great deal of room for interpretation and individual motivation,” Steneck says. With little guidance offered to institutions and professional societies on how they should do their part in improving research integrity, “[h]ow researchers reading this [g]uide behave will heavily depend on that advice they are given by supervisors and peers on doing what they should do and responding to challenges.” Nonetheless, the new guide “is a valuable contribution” to ongoing efforts to foster research integrity, he writes.

Daniele Fanelli

Daniele Fanelli

Courtesy of Daniele Fanelli

Daniele Fanelli, a senior scientist at the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS) in Palo Alto, California, who helped oversee the recent writing of the research integrity guidelines of Italy's National Research Council, also welcomes the guide as “an accessible summary of good recommendations,” he writes in an email to Science Careers. But it “fails to address the future,” he adds. “The younger generations of scientists are immersed in a technology and culture of sharing to which the ‘old guard’ is oblivious. They are today experimenting with approaches that might completely revolutionize the way science is managed, conducted and communicated. In many ways, important transformations are already happening and I am not sure that current guidelines are keeping up.”

One of the greatest benefits of the guide, however, could be that it will help younger generations keep their enthusiasm and values intact as they progress in their careers. “I am often under the impression that young researchers are actually far more idealistic than their experienced colleagues, but sadly see their idealism eroding over time. So a text like this might help young researchers keep their idealism alive.”

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