Sunday, February 2, 2020

#IntegrityAndTrust 2. Teamwork in research ethics and integrity

Maintaining Trust AND Data Integrity - a forum for discussion. INFO HERE.
#IntegrityAndTrust 2. The role of teamwork in research ethics and integrity

Steven J. Cooke, Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

About ten years ago I created an “expectations” document that I share and discuss with all new team members.  It consists of twelve topics and usually takes me about two hours to work my way through.  The very first topic on the list is ethics and the document states “Lab members will adhere to the highest level of standards related to ethical practices of data collection, analysis and reporting”.  Despite it being the FIRST thing I cover, I usually spend a grand total of 30 seconds as I fumble around the idea that they shouldn’t commit fraud, trying to do so without making them sound like criminals.  I think one of the reasons that I move past that point so quickly is that it seems so obvious – don’t fudge your data or do “unethical” things.  Upon reflection over the last few days I have concluded that I must do better and engage in a more meaningful discussion about ethics and integrity.  However, I am still struggling with what that means.  I look forward to learning from our community and formalizing how I approach issues of research ethics and integrity not just upon entry into our lab but as an ongoing conversation.

As I reflect on recent events, I am left wondering how this could happen.  A common thread is that data were collected alone.  This concept is somewhat alien to me and has been throughout my training and career.  I can’t think of a SINGLE empirically-based paper among those that I have authored or that has been done by my team members for which the data were collected by a single individual without help from others.  To some this may seem odd, but I consider my type of research to be a team sport.  As a fish ecologist (who incorporates behavioural and physiological concepts and tools), I need to catch fish, move them about, handle them, care for them, maintain environmental conditions, process samples, record data, etc – nothing that can be handled by one person without fish welfare or data quality being compromised.  Beyond that, although I am a researcher, I am also (and perhaps foremost) an educator.  And the best way for students to learn is by exposing them to diverse experiences which means having them help one another.  So – in our lab – collaborative teamwork during data collection is essential and the norm.

So, is having students (and post docs and/or technicians) work together to collect data sufficient to protect against ethical breaches?  Unlikely… yet it goes a long way to mitigating some aspects of this potential problem.  Small (or large) teams working together means more eyes (and hearts and minds) thinking about how research is being done.  This creates opportunities for self-correction as different values, worldviews and personal ethics intersect.  It also enhances learning opportunities especially if there are opportunities to circle back with mentors.  I try to visit team members (especially on the front end of studies) or connect with them via phone or email to provide opportunity for adjustments beyond the “plans” that may have appeared in a proposal.  When I do so I don’t just communicate with the “lead” student.  Rather, I want to interact with all of those working on a given project.  This provides an opportunity to reinforce the culture of intellectual sharing.  It is not uncommon in our lab for well-designed plans to be reworked based on input from assistants during the early phases of a project –adjustments in what we do and how we do it.  This level of ownership means that there is collective impetus to get it right (and I don’t mean finding statistically significant findings).  Creating an environment where all voices matter (no matter of status) has the potential to reduce bias and improve the quality of the science.  As a community we already do this with respect to workplace safety where safety is “everybody’s business”.  Why can’t this become the norm where “research ethics” and study quality are everybody’s business? 

There is much to think about ranging from the role of open science and pre-registration of scientific studies to reframing our training programs to build an ethical culture.  Yet, an obvious practice that I will be continuing is one where students (and others) work in teams during the data collection phase.  There is need to empower individuals to challenge their peers but do so in a constructive and collaborative manner.  By Working together in data collection there is opportunity for continual interaction and engagement that can only benefit science and enable the development of ethical researchers.  There are also ways in which this can be extended to the data analysis phase (e.g., using GitHub) where team members work collaboratively on analysis and take time to double (and triple) check their code and analysis (I am not the best one to comment on this approach but we are actively pursuing how to do this in our lab).

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