Graduate Students

How to Train Graduate Students in Research Ethics: Lessons From 6 Universities

August 14, 2012

What do graduate students consider ethical research conduct? It depends on their adviser, says a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools.

According to the report, which is being released today, graduate students overly rely on their advisers, rather than university resources, for guidance on thorny issues such as spotting self-plagiarism, identifying research misconduct, or understanding conflicts of interest.

The findings come three years after the National Science Foundation said that it's up to universities to make sure researchers receive ethics training required by the federal government.

Graduate students who were surveyed as part of the council's Project for Scholarly Integrity felt they had a good grasp of research ethics, said Daniel Denecke, associate vice president for programs and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools. But "when we really drill down," he said, "we see a real need on the part of students to know how to handle perceived misconduct."

The report, "Research and Scholarly Integrity in Graduate Education: A Comprehensive Approach," outlines the findings from the project, which began in 2008 and is financed by the federal Office of Research Integrity.

The project gathered extensive survey data from six universities on the campus climate for research ethics, the resources devoted to ethics training, and the extent to which each university engages in efforts to improve training. The project also tracked the institutions' progress in areas of weakness that each university identified for itself and then sought to improve by designing new ethics training for graduate programs.

University administrators have struggled to improve training in research ethics as more and more cases of scholarly misconduct make headlines. The council blames the increase in ethical debacles, in part, on new financial incentives for cheating, and on tighter enforcement of government regulations on research conduct.

The institutions that participated in the project were the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Arizona, and Columbia, Emory, Michigan State, and Pennsylvania State Universities.

"All six institutions confronted the basic challenges facing other institutions," said Mr. Denecke. Those challenges included how to engage more faculty in training and how to expand effective pilot programs so that they can be used campuswide.

Among the solutions found to improve ethics instruction was a program at the University of Arizona that offered small grants, of up to $1,500, to encourage graduate students to design new ways to include such training in pre-existing graduate courses and curricula.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham realized through assessment surveys the project provided that graduate students didn't feel confident in picking out self-plagiarism— instances in which they need to cite their own work— even though they considered plagiarism an important issue. To help graduate students better understand authorship, administrators rebranded an existing "Avoiding Plagiarism" workshop as "Ethical Authorship: Joining the Scholarly Conversation," to avoid sounding punitive. They also designed short, interactive exercises to identify plagiarism.

The survey tools and the lessons from the six universities are available on the Council on Graduate Schools' Web site. Mr. Denecke said the council would like other universities to consult those models to assess and improve their own ethics training.