“Ethics is not a tick box at the beginning. You don’t just get ethics approval on day one and think ‘OK, off we go’.”
So says Judi Sture, head of the University of Bradford’s Graduate School. “Many people still think ethics is something that gets in the way of getting on and doing the work,” she adds.
To help graduate students take research ethics more seriously, 12 years ago Sture organised a mandatory programme of research training for all social science students. As part of their training, Bradford’s postgraduate social science researchers are introduced to an ethics research framework. They also get to present their work to a mock ethics approval panel and undertake an assessed assignment. Until they pass, the students cannot become bona fide PhD candidates.
“Unless you’ve had this training, which includes ethics in research training from me, you can’t transfer to full PhD registration,” says Sture.
The university’s motivation is protection of both the university and the public, Sture says. “Many universities are still of the view that they’ve just got to protect themselves. In my view, the more important thing is to protect the research participants, the end users. Our main responsibility should be to them.”
Other universities that have introduced ethics and integrity research and training include Teeside University and King’s College London.
Andrew Rawnsley, research governance and training manager at Teeside, claims that research misconduct is largely understood in the UK as an issue of compliance, when it should really be about encouraging ethical behaviour.
“Research integrity and ethics have largely been driven by risk assessment and compliance, [which] produces a rather tick-box approach to what should be more about professional development of staff and improving systems so that they encourage people to act with integrity,” says Rawnsley.
A joint research project between King’s and Teeside, which is assessing awareness of ethics across UK universities, will develop resources to help institutions incorporate integrity awareness into researcher training. “We thought, wouldn’t it be useful to do some empirical work to begin looking for better evidence about what research staff and students might need in order to develop their awareness,” Rawnsley says.
These issues have also been addressed by The Concordat to Support Research Integrity, which was published by Universities UK in collaboration with Research Councils UK and other funders last July.
In a consultation open until 8 March, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is seeking views on whether the institutions it funds should comply with the concordat.
“There’s an institutional responsibility to make sure that these things are clearly communicated and people understand them. It’s not so much about the lack of processes or policies, it’s about how they’re communicated,” says Chris Hale, deputy director of policy at Universities UK.