Research integrity: the slippery slope

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The continuum from good to bad, over unacceptable

Research integrity is part of researchers’ professional responsibility and inherently connected to what we do (or not) in a research context. The research behaviour is guided by values and norms, as set out in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, or the ALLEA code.

Our research behaviour can be put on a continuum. On the one side of the spectrum, we find the ‘good research practices’. On the other extreme, we find a couple of research practices of which there is agreement within the community, that they are ‘bad’ or unacceptable. In the middle there is a grey zone where we find behaviour that is not straightforward ‘good’ and the circumstances will determine how ‘bad’ it is.




The good research practices 



It’s conduct that is consistent with, e.g. the ALLEA Code.

Although (honest) mistakes might compromise the research record and/or the quality of research, they are considered to be part of good research practices, as long as the researcher also communicates honest about the mistakes, corrects them, and ensures making mistakes does not become a habit (out of carelessness or because the mistakes suits the researcher well).



The bad research practices 


Bad research practices are considered ‘the real fraud’. At this moment, only three types of behaviour belong to this category, for this they are called ‘the big three’:

  • Fabrication = inventing research data, materials or results
  • Falsification = adjusting, changing research data, materials or results
  • Plagiarism = pretending research data, materials or results are yours.

There is consensus within the research community that this behaviour is unacceptable and fraudulent, cannot be tolerated and are sanctionable (this does not automatically mean that it is easy to demonstrate or prove the unacceptable behaviour or that it is straightforward to determine sanctions etc.).

The persistence of behaviour that adversely affects the quality of research may also be considered as real fraud, although the behaviour is not one of the three above.



Other Unacceptable practices 


This behaviour is undesirable and unacceptable, but will not always lead to sanctions to the same extent as ‘real fraud’ (bad research practices), unless in their most serious form or as part of a persistant behaviour.

ALLEA lists this behaviour as “other unacceptable practices” (OUP) and gives a list of examples (non-exhaustive). More broadly, failure to respect good research practices as well as failure to follow the fundamental principles (values) of research integrity (reliability, honesty, respect, accountability) as described in the ALLEA Code is considered to be unacceptable.

This behaviour is sometimes also called 'questionable' behaviour or ‘reprehensible’ behaviour. During the last couple of years, we have seen a shift in terminology in favour of the use of "OUP". This already indicates a tendency to be less tolerant towards OUP.


How can I determine if my behaviour is problematic

If you have doubts about your own behaviour… Ask yourself if you would dare to tell your colleagues what you did and why you did it. If you would speak openly about your behaviour, quite likely your behaviour falls under the category of ‘good research practices’. If you would rather hide and not speak openly about a specific situation and how you handled it: this is often an indication that your research behaviour is less or not acceptable.

In order to explore the sometimes thin line between good research practices and unacceptable research practices, it is of crucial importance that researchers speak openly about their experiences, that they can share ideas.

And remember, accountability is one of the basic values in the ALLEA Code, so at any time a researcher needs to be able to explain his or her research behaviour and the rationale behind it.


The "slippery slope"



The slope is another way of representing the continuum:

Even if we aim for good research practices we can make honest mistakes.

If we keep making mistakes (because of laziness, lack of training, unwillingness, ignorance, …) our research becomes sloppy.

Sloppy research can also mean that we do not work consciously enough, causing bias which influences our research results (e.g. a ‘male/female’ view on things).

Influencing our research results can also be a conscious act by designing research in such a way that it becomes very predictable.

Designing in a predefined way easily leads to making adjustments afterwards (falsification).

Leading to fabrication where execution of the research becomes superfluous and the results are fraudulently generated.

In most cases, fraud or misconduct in research is not the consequence of a sudden one-off act, but more often it’s a gradual process of small steps in which the researcher slips further and further into the red zone.



An example: "salami slicing"


One example to illustrate the spectrum from good to bad research practices is "salami slicing".

Carefully designing a publication strategy and adjusting content and style (without of course compromising the research record) is considered to be a good research practice.

However, producing as many publications as possible in order to inflate one’s CV is at least questionable and even unacceptable, in particular when it concerns "salami slicing".

It is completely unacceptable when a researcher would not slice up his or her research into a series of papers, but would simply do "self-plagiarism".

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Last modified Sept. 20, 2022, 10:19 a.m.