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Research with Integrity – integrating training into research culture

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

24 January 2023

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Research integrity training is becoming ubiquitous – but how it’s delivered, and who to, varies incredibly. That is a problem, says Dr Catherine Winchester in the latest of our series focussing on research integrity. So, how can we embed training like this in a systematic way?

This entry is part 5 of 13 in the series Research Integrity

Promoting and supporting research integrity at an organisational level takes many forms. In this series Andrew Porter and I have previously introduced our roles as research integrity advisers, and discussed the work we do on strengthening publications. However, a common strategy for advocating research integrity is formal research integrity training.

Training in research integrity is now widespread amongst research organisations and universities across the UK and internationally, and can serve many purposes; however, there isn’t much in the literature about how effective training is in actually improving research practices. It should give us pause for thought though, that there are a few studies showing that when not done correctly, training had little effect on changing researchers’ behaviour.

“All researchers should receive research integrity training, regardless of their career stage or job title… we have made the training mandatory, with records of attendance monitored.”

However, I believe that most researchers have an intrinsic moral compass and want to do the best research they can. Which is, obviously, a good thing – especially given that one recent study suggested that researchers’ moral values had already been influenced in childhood by their family, education and participation in sports. Training, therefore, is about enhancing this and equipping researchers with the necessary skills.

The scope of training

Primarily, research integrity training provides a framework to promote best practices, to raise awareness of questionable research practices and reduce potential problems and research misconduct.

It can also be used to disseminate policy information, provide guidance, set boundaries, and as a tool for building a culture of knowledge and understanding of research integrity. Being aware of local processes and knowing who to contact about what and when is fundamental for all researchers. Research integrity training can also help strengthen researchers’ personal moral values, provide time to reflect on their practices, and enable them to understand their professional responsibilities, such as those set out in the Concordat to support research integrity. I also think it can, and should, function to protect and support researchers and research organisations.

“For researchers to get the most out of research integrity training, it needs to go beyond guidance and policy and provide practical information.”

Although research integrity training is becoming ubiquitous, the curriculum, training material, delivery style, frequency and even who receives training, vary from organisation to organisation. Whatever the remit, research integrity training should be about embedding good research practices and encompass the entire research lifecycle – from designing experiments to disseminating findings and applying for grant funding. I also think it needs to include customised sessions on discipline-specific standards and issues in a field, for it to be relevant and useful for researchers.

And for researchers to get the most out of research integrity training, it needs to go beyond guidance and policy and provide practical information. This in turn needs to be integrated into organisational practices with support, resources and infrastructure to enable researchers to conduct and adopt responsible research practices.

In addition, as research integrity is viewed more broadly, overlapping with research culture and environment, so the training themes are expanding into areas traditionally thought of as HR – such as supervision, EDI, bullying and harassment. Some of us in the Scottish Research Integrity Network (including Samantha Oakley and Emily Woollen) have been attempting to consolidate topics that could be covered in this umbrella definition of research integrity and are working on an ever expanding list of areas, content and resources.

In-house or out-source?

Many organisations run in house training, as do we at the CRUK Beatson Institute and the CRUK Manchester Institute, whilst others use commercial training providers.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, researchers at the Manchester Institute also complete an online research integrity training package from online course provider Epigeum, which is compulsory for all University of Manchester researchers.

One of the benefits of providing the training ourselves is that we can tailor it to areas of specific relevance to pre-clinical biomedical cancer researchers and incorporate policy requirements of our funders and the journals we publish in. We also update our training throughout the year to include changes in best practice and discipline-specific content.

At the Beatson, we took the decision that all researchers should receive research integrity training, regardless of their career stage or job title. And we have made the training mandatory, with records of attendance monitored. There are pros and cons to this stance, but we felt that everyone should receive the same information and have the same opportunities for guidance, discussion and reflection.

We have been running research integrity training for 9 years and it’s now an accepted part of the induction process. Our research integrity training programme currently includes 4 sessions: general introduction, integrity in science communication, integrity in managing research data and responsible image processing. The size of the Beatson enables training to be delivered face-to face in small groups, or individually for new PIs. This can make training very interactive and provides opportunities to share experiences, discuss case studies, and for questions to be asked spontaneously.

I have found that with research integrity training, it pays to be pragmatic. It’s a serious subject – it can also be a dry one. So I make the training content relevant and the sessions enjoyable and thought-provoking. That approach seems to be consistent with the results of a recent focus group study that concluded research integrity training should be attractive to everyone and tailored to disciplinary-specific contexts. I also think that in-person training helps with engagement, and at the Beatson it is an opportunity for researchers to meet their research integrity adviser. That is useful both ways – it’s very helpful to get to know people and their research areas.

Just the beginning…

It should also be remembered that formal training in research integrity is just the starting point.

To be effective, it must be considered within research groups themselves – they need to have open conversations about how to make integrity a cornerstone of their work. This, combined with other relevant skills training, will mean that research integrity can be an important component of the systematic approach an organisation takes to science. It shouldn’t be thought of as a quick fix or conducted in isolation. It really needs to be connected to, and aligned with, other activities.

For example, at the Beatson Institute, the Advanced Imaging Resource is fostering this idea by not only discussing the principles of experimental design, reproducibility and avoiding bias, data analysis, data storage and data sharing in their facility training, but they are also running informal “techbite” seminars to reinforce these concepts. Research integrity training should be standard practice and an embedded part of a responsible research environment.

So, I encourage you to go along to research integrity training with an open mind, share your experiences, and contribute to making your research culture better. And at the same time reflect on how this can only help to strengthen your research and ensure that your research is reproducible.

What integrity training have you found useful? Please do share it in a comment below this article.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of this series from Dr Andrew Porter in February.

Dr Catherine Winchester is senior research adviser – grants and research integrity at the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute