Training undergraduates to be ethical researchers

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It is a given that integrity underpins all university research. These days, universities have embedded ethics policies to which all members of a university (students as well as staff) must subscribe. It is also a matter of routine that all students submitting work for assessment must now do so by stating (or ticking a box to say) that all sources used have been properly acknowledged. Given the comprehensive coverage of the subject via such university-wide mechanisms, it might well seem that there is little for the university lecturer to do when it comes to training undergraduates to be ethical researchers.

But the commonplace practice of embedding ethics policies across teaching and learning practice may, paradoxically, mean that these have become the unexamined background to undergraduate life. Taken in the round, it might then be argued that a lecturer’s job is to defamiliarise the routine aspects of intellectual life, in order to produce critical and analytical thinkers who can then carry such values into the professional environment and into civic life in general. In other words, is it really enough to ask a student to sign a plagiarism form, or to tick a box, without getting that student to consider the reasoning behind it?


Lecturers might start with definitions, asking students to consider the wide range of areas that fall under the rubric of ‘research ethics’.  Areas for discussion might include: decisions relating to good record keeping and data management; protecting data and considering data lifespans; ethical use of source material through robust record-keeping, referencing and acknowledgement techniques; avoiding inadvertent plagiarism; considerations of the boundaries between collaboration and collusion; being aware of any risks in a particular research field; and, for areas that involve using human subjects (STEM subjects and social sciences subjects), obtaining consent, safeguarding vulnerable groups; and in medicine, forensics, life sciences, and other areas, abiding by regulation on the use of live subjects (animals and human) and/or tissue or organic remains. Research integrity therefore covers a very wide field of practice and behaviours. Even for those students in the humanities whose work may be purely text or archive based, it is worth raising all of these points.

Defamiliarising the familiar

Lecturers might also take steps to make students consider research ethics as an active part of their practice, by asking first years to discuss a number of hypothetical scenarios that relate to their field. Such exercises might include: debating the ethics of using an ‘essay mill’ service; producing critical assessments of a number of Wikipedia pages in the subject area in question; debating what constitutes informed consent, and how it might be obtained in relation to different demographics (including considerations of age, gender, cultural and/or ethnic differences); understanding the difference between anonymity and confidentiality in surveys (i.e. the difference between data that has inbuilt identification of subjects at source, and data that cannot be traced back to any individual); and familiarising students with the fundamentals of current data protection laws.

The fundamentals of good practice

Lastly, lecturers might consider teaching behaviours that facilitate research integrity. These might include: discussing record-keeping techniques (getting students to compile bibliographies helps students understand the significance of always recording the details of any source they consult); getting students to generate their own timelines of research projects with inbuilt deadlines for obtaining consent from subjects; creating project checklists before submission; triangulating or cross-checking sources; understanding the difference between peer-reviewed source material and material that is in the public sphere, and being able to identify and pursue peer-reviewed material.

These are a few ways in which students might be encouraged to take an active approach to understanding the importance of ethical behaviours in their research. This is not just because it will make them a better student, but because society at large will benefit in the longer term from citizens who take an actively critical, ethically-based approach to the vast amount of data that circulates today.

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