Teaching and learning research integrity


Knowledge and skills in research integrity as well as values and attitudes can be taught through socialisation into a scientific community.

Research integrity can be and should be taught

Competence in research integrity is made up of knowledge and skills applied in the different stages of conducting research. This knowledge and these skills can be taught. Research integrity is also related to values and attitudes. Adopting and developing values and attitudes can also be supported both by teaching and by offering an operating environment that communicates the importance of ethical principles both during study and during teaching and research work at universities.

The most common means of ensuring that students at universities and universities of applied sciences take on board the necessary knowledge and skills in research integrity is to offer a study module concentrating on precisely that. Increasing attention has been paid to teaching in research integrity with the development of postgraduate education in Finland. An example of this is the online course in research integrity already used by the PhD programmes of many universities.

Training that concentrates on research integrity ensures that the topic is prominent and that learning goals are assigned for it. If no space is set aside for the topic either as a course in its own right or by including it as part of other study modules (e.g. research methods or research seminars), there is a risk that research integrity will only be addressed randomly. This leads to those teaching on teaching programmes having no concept of whether the topic has been covered with students or not, and if it has, in how much detail. For this reason, research integrity should be included in the curriculum, whether the means by which it is taught is either a dedicated course or whether it is integrated with another study module.

Training that concentrates on research integrity ensures that the topic is prominent and that learning goals are assigned for it.

To ensure that research and the researcher’s ethics are rooted as part of the researcher’s identity and actions, research integrity cannot, however, merely depend on an individual study module. Instead, the subject should be returned to at different phases of the student’s studies. Although not all students will embark on a research career, research competence is part of university education and research integrity is part of the knowledge and skills required for conducting research. This being the case, bachelor’s and master’s degrees could also be expected to support competence in research integrity. After all, bachelor’s and master’s theses are exercises in conducting research. Including research integrity in teaching at as early a stage of study as possible would be desirable. Including ethics in studies, for example from the point of view of the ethics of study, research integrity, the responsible conduct of research and professional ethics encourages the development of ethical sensitivity.

The learning goals for research integrity vary depending on the level of study and on the kind of course or study module within which the topic is placed. It is recommended that a more common learning goal should be to equip students with tools for identifying, analysing and resolving questions relating to research integrity. Irrespective of the scientific field, teaching should include the responsible conduct of research and misconduct as defined by the Finnish National Board on Research Integrity TENK’s RCR Guidelines. In addition, teaching should include other ethical guidelines central to the scientific field concerned (e.g. the Declaration of Helsinki in medical science) and content relating to the treatment of research subjects (e.g. the fact that participation in research must be voluntary and based on informed consent and guaranteeing anonymity). At postgraduate level, the learning goals may be, for example, for postgraduate students to familiarise themselves with research integrity issues arising between scientific fields and in interdisciplinary contexts and develop characteristics and expertise that enable them to act as ethical leaders in their research communities in the future.

Teaching and evaluation methods to support learning research integrity

Research literature contains countless examples of various trials of teaching methods that use examples from the daily life of researchers to shed light on ethical principles. Contextualising research integrity using case studies helps students to connect ethical principles to actual phenomena. Students are markedly better at identifying ethical questions once these have been connected to the phases of conducting research, compared to their being asked to describe what a particular ethical principle means in research work in practice. This would appear to be one reason why case studies work so well in teaching research integrity. Case studies are used to address problematic ethical issues in research and engage students in seeking to resolve them.

In addition, teaching methods in which students can take on different roles enlarge their range of viewpoints and thus help them to see the complexity of ethical questions and to understand how different interests affect the choices made by those acting in the field of research. There are numerous roles in the scientific community (for example, member of ethical review board, teaching and research staff, postgraduate students, administrators) that can be used in opening up different viewpoints, such as in negotiations on whether the university should adopt a preventative or reactive approach to research misconduct.

In all teaching, including teaching research integrity, the teaching is planned around set learning goals. The learning goals should be realistic in terms of the stage of study and the curriculum, and connected to learning informative content (e.g. the RCR Guidelines), skills (e.g. practical application) and developing attitudes (e.g. valuing ethically sustainable solutions in science). Teaching methods are selected such that they support achieving the learning goals.

It is important that the student takes an active thinking role and thus also has to form an opinion on different interpretations and solutions.

As seen above, acquiring and applying the knowledge can be taught using case studies, for example. When considering and developing attitudes and values, activities that support reflection work well, e.g. creating a research integrity portfolio. In learning research integrity, it is important that the student takes an active thinking role and thus also has to form an opinion on different interpretations and solutions. A central factor in understanding research integrity is activating the student’s own thinking and feedback on the sustainability of their ethical reasoning.

Good ways of evaluating learning are those in which the student, for example, resolves dilemmas in research integrity, presenting both justifications, suggested solutions and the considerations associated with these. Good methods for evaluating learning are those that turn the evaluation into a learning opportunity, and in which they can demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge. A research integrity portfolio and own reflections associated with it also work well both as a learning task and a tool for evaluating learning.

Research integrity is learned through socialisation into a scientific community

Research integrity is also learned by participating in the activities of a scientific community. Irrespective of what the students are taught within the framework of the teaching programme, they also learn by observing the scientific community and participating in its activities. Interaction with teachers, supervisors and researchers creates important learning experiences for students and means of understanding the activities of the scientific community. Students’ commitment to ethical principles requires them to reflect on their own ethical values, also in relation to the values of the scientific community. From this point of view, it is essential that the scientific community as a whole supports the same message of the importance of research integrity that is taught in courses on research integrity through its members’ own actions when working as scientists. The threshold for acting unethically is high in a community in which other members respect ethical principles.

There is little training in research integrity for teachers at universities and universities of applied sciences or pedagogical support in teaching research integrity on offer in Finland. It would be important for teaching and research staff at universities and universities of applied sciences to have both content-related expertise on research integrity issues and sufficient pedagogical competence in order to support students’ understanding of research integrity.

Erika Löfström, Professor of Education, University of Helsinki

Further information:

About the online course in research integrity: https://www.vastuullinentiede.fi/en/doing-research/online-course-research-integrity
Responsible conduct of research guidelines: http://www.tenk.fi/sites/tenk.fi/files/HTK_ohje_2012.pdf
Declaration of Helsinki: https://www.wma.net/policies-post/wma-declaration-of-helsinki-ethical-principles-for-medical-research-involving-human-subjects/
Alfredo, K. & Hart, H. (2011). The university and the responsible conduct of research: who is responsible for what? Science and Engineering Ethics, 17, 447–457.
Löfström, E. (2016). Role-playing institutional academic integrity policy-making: using researched perspectives to develop pedagogy. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 12:5, 1–14.
Löfström, E. (2012). Students’ Ethical Awareness and Conceptions of Research Ethics. Ethics & Behavior, 22(5), 349–361.
Rissanen, M. & Löfström, E. ­(2014). Students’ research ethics competences and the university as a learning environment. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 10(2), 17–30.
Tryon, G. S. (2000). Ethical transgressions of school psychology graduate students: a critical incidents survey. Ethics & Behavior, 10(3), 271–279.
Zucchero, R. A. (2008). Can psychology ethics be integrated into introductory psychology? Journal of Academic Ethics 6, 245–257.

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