Wither research integrity? Framing the issues

Professor Denis Fischbacher-Smith, University of Glasgow

Most academic visitors to the Chartered ABS website will probably consider that they engage in research that meets the highest ethical and integrity standards. But what does this mean in practical terms? Do people perceive research integrity as simply obtaining ethical approval for the work, or does it extend to include disseminating the research to the highest ethical standards? Should it be a combination of both processes working together in a synergistic way that sees ethical considerations being central to the whole research and dissemination process?  If it is the latter, then whose ethical standards should academic staff adhere to and what happens if their host university’s standards are potentially less stringent than the researcher’s professional body, or the funder on whose behalf the research is carried out?

Does research integrity, taken as a holistic construct, include such issues as: misrepresenting the extent of an individual’s expertise in an area (including by acts of commission and omission); not declaring a commercial, political, or ideological interest when publishing a report or providing commentary in support of government policies; and having one’s name added to a paper without having made a substantial contribution to it?  Where does self-plagiarism sit in this process and how to we determine when it is appropriate to publish with a post-graduate student who wants to include the same material in their thesis? Would originality checking software highlight the use of such material as potentially problematic and, if so, how should it be handled? For example, a question could be asked as to the extent of the supervisor’s contribution to the thesis if material from a jointly authored and published paper was included within the thesis?  Would this count against the student as it could be argued that it is not their original work but joint work with a co-author? If it is their original work then what was the substantive contribution that the supervisor made to the journal?

Some journals, notably in the medical sciences, require a clear statement of the relative contributions that the various authors made to the paper and which is often published with the piece, but most journals in business and management do not have this explicit requirement. Inevitably, there are likely to be quite diverse opinions on this issue, even within the same institution, and different disciplinary areas may well have very different established practices on the matter. Framed in this way, research integrity can be seen as a complex, multi-level issue that has the potential to cause reputational problems for the individual member of staff, their business school, the host university and potentially for the PhD student. There have been a number of cases where integrity issues have caused such reputational damage and have ended the career of senior academics. As a result, it should be seen as an issue that is at the core of what we do as researchers.

 

Research integrity: framing a construct

One of the challenges facing researchers is that research integrity isn't a simple binary issue of right and wrong, or of good or bad practice. There are also areas within the research and dissemination process that colleagues might not always see as being relevant to the integrity issue. The question of self-plagiarism highlighted above is often a case in point, and this can prove to be a contested issue across the academic community.  Researchers can, therefore, fall foul of different interpretations of what constitutes best-practice, give or receive inconsistent advice to others,  or fail to deal with emergent problems that come out of the process of undertaking the research. By their very nature, many emergent problems will not have been considered when the research was granted ethical approval. The challenge for the academic community is, in part, the language of integrity itself. Research integrity can be seen as a broad construct which covers the range of research activities and, one might argue, a range of professional and corporate-engagement practices that the academic business community undertakes.

In exploring the nature of the term’s parameters, Steneck (2007), argues that:

“In general terms, responsible conduct in research is simply good citizenship applied to professional life. Researchers who report their work honestly, accurately, effectively, and objectively are on the right road when it comes to responsible conduct. Anyone who is dishonest, knowingly reports inaccurate results, wastes funds, or allows personal bias to influence scientific findings is not” (p. xi)

Perhaps the most contentious issue here is that of personal bias. We are all influenced by our assumptions and cognitive biases and this can be particularly problematic in a real-world research context. In such cases, the interpretation of research findings can be open to debate, especially where the burden of proof is not as clearly defined as in other, more controlled, research environments.

The UK’s Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) outlines a set of core principles for research integrity which overlap, in part, with those set out by Steneck. In addition to Steneck’s elements of honesty, accuracy, effectiveness, and objectivity, UKRIO add a number of other elements to the integrity construct and these include: compliance, accountability, communication, and issues of equity and transparency around authorship (UK Research Integrity Office, 2009). Of particular interest here is the UKRIO’s views on conflicts of interest and collaborative working. UKRIO suggests that researchers should declare any potential conflicts of interest and should also ensure that their collaborators conform to the same high integrity standards, irrespective of the legal jurisdiction in which they work.  This could, of course, be seen to include the social media reporting of research or the expression of academic judgment across a range of communications media. The area of social media remains something of a potential integrity minefield given the largely unregulated environment in which much of it occurs and it is likely to remain an issue as the number of such platforms increases.

 

Testing research integrity

Research integrity is clearly a dynamic issue - its subtleties and nuances emerge and shift over time and may, in part, reflect the environment in which the work was undertaken. Consider, for instance, the following examples of practice and reflect on whether they meet the elements of a broad-based research integrity test as set out above:

  • A senior member of staff advises a research associate that they should publish two papers a year and that they should include the supervisor’s name on the paper, despite the fact that the latter contributes only limited comments;
  • Academics commenting in a supportive way on policy issues put forward by a political party fail to acknowledge their own political affiliations when writing in support of that policy on social media;
  • An academic claims expertise in an area that they don’t have the evidence (via qualification or experience) to support, but masks this in conversations with potential end-users and students;
  • An academic acts as the lead supervisor for a PhD, but does so in an area for which they have no verifiable expertise.

In all likelihood, none of these issues would be addressed through the mainstream ethical approval process for research but they could potentially all end up causing reputational problems for the institution. Issues of research integrity cover a broad spectrum of actions, some of which may well involve research fraud, some will relate to issues around governance and communication, but some will not always be seen as relevant by colleagues including such issues as those raised above. It is in this potential grey area that many research integrity issues lurk, waiting to cause problems for those unsuspecting researchers who did not see the problem coming. We are all potentially vulnerable to these types of problems and especially so in a metrics-driven research environment where there are considerable pressures placed on academic staff and research students to publish and communicate the results of research to as wide an audience as possible.

 

What does this mean for Business Schools?

The obvious challenge here is to ensure that business schools behave in a way that shows leadership in areas of research integrity. We cannot, after all, hope to change the practices of managers and policy makers around governance and integrity if we don’t behave in that way ourselves. This may well result in some considerable reflexive actions about what makes a business school and, perhaps more importantly, what makes a business school academic. Should we require, for example, that staff disclose their academic and practice backgrounds to students and external bodies so that it is clear on what basis we claim expertise in business and management? What implications would that have for schools who are already struggling to find suitable staff in some shortage areas?  Also, where does research and managerial integrity begin and end within the context of a business school?  At what point should institutions who have signed the research concordat reflect upon the inevitable game playing that takes place around submitting staff in the REF and, in the process, also question the integrity of the subsequent production of league tables. Should we call out the lack of integrity – research or otherwise -  whenever, and wherever, we see it?

The reality is that most of us will think carefully before engaging in a critique of our own institutions and that in itself speaks volumes about the challenges that we face as a community of practice. Research integrity is, potentially, a Pandora’s Box for business education and one that we should certainly be willing to open up and engage with. However, the warning is that it could very well change the ways in which we work and do so beyond the rather narrow perspectives provided by gaining ethical approval for our research. If business schools don’t take a lead in this area then we lose a significant opportunity to move business education and its associated research agendas to a higher level of discourse and provide a shining light to business practice in the process.

 

Professor Denis Fischbacher-Smith holds the research chair in risk and resilience within the Adam Smith Business School at the University of Glasgow, where he is also the research integrity champion for the College of Social Science.  He would like to acknowledge the comments made on an earlier version of this document by Moira Fischbacher-Smith (Glasgow University), Alan Irwin (Copenhagen Business School), and Frank Worthington (Newcastle University), as well as a number of colleagues from within the CABS research committee. Needless to say, all errors of omission and commission, along with a range of cognitive biases, remain those of the author.

 

References

Steneck, N. H. 2007. Introduction to the responsible conduct of research. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office (Department of Health & Human Services).

UK Research Integrity Office. 2009. Code of practice for research. Promoting good practice and preventing misconduct. London: UK Research Integrity Office.

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