Disciplinary differences in research integrity training

What is this about?

Academic disciplines, such as humanities, medicine or natural science, approach research integrity for young researchers differently. While a university upholds one code of conduct, the manner of its application depends on the discipline, its methods and the data created. In many universities research integrity training is promoted for young (PhD) researchers. However, the form training takes within different disciplines highlights different “problem narratives” in relation to research integrity.

Why is this important?

Specific disciplines deal with different problems concerning research integrity and research ethics. For instance, a physicist might have different concerns to a statistician or a researcher in a hospital. As universities have different faculties, often reflecting specific disciplines, research integrity training is often given per discipline. One study looked into the specific differences of doctoral courses on research integrity (1). The main lesson learned from this study concerns the variation of the “problem narrative” underpinning the different courses.

These problem narratives frame the way the research integrity is presented, and also the way that the roles of the doctoral students are articulated.

  • In the Health Faculty, for instance, the course was based on the idea that researchers are inherently ‘small cheaters’ who individually have to navigate an inimical culture; a problem narrative that was reproduced in the pedagogical design and the didactical choices made by the course teachers.
  • In the Social Sciences Faculty, the problem narrative of the “broken system” was emphasized, where the doctoral students were caught between incentivizing and promotion systems which incentivize questionable practices and a scientific system with inherent biases and poor practices.
  • In the Humanities Faculty, ethical dilemmas were accepted as part of scientific practice.
  • In the Natural Sciences Faculty, the disciplinary field was thought to be fundamentally sound, and research integrity training merely served to provide early career academics with the research practices and techniques to maintain and strengthen this field of science.

Despite these different problematizations, the solutions that were promoted in the courses were surprisingly similar. While participants were informed about the institutional support that was available, all the courses (explicitly and implicitly) highlighted the responsibility of individuals and research groups for acting with integrity in their own local practice. All the courses used casework and group discussions to focus on everyday dilemmas in the belief that through ‘reflexivity’ participants would be empowered to act responsibly, even when surrounded by ‘small cheaters’ and dealing with structural pressures from an increasingly competitive research environment.

The study suggests that a common trait of the doctoral courses is to responsibilize the early career researchers, while not necessarily giving them the tools necessary to carry this responsibility. The concept of the varying problem narratives emerging from this study is a key insight which might be very valuable in the design of future training activities. Teachers and course leaders are very influential in framing the courses, based on their own conceptions of the “problem of research integrity”. These problem narratives might be based on disciplinary differences, but they may also be influenced by the background of the course leaders and teachers, their own experiences with research integrity or research cultures, and it is vital that course leaders reflect on these problem narratives and how they shape the training activities.

For whom is this important?

PhD Students, Supervisors, Postdocs, Research integrity trainers

What are the best practices?

Research integrity trainers need to become aware of the problem narratives that they themselves are embedded in and which frame their approach to teaching research integrity. Perhaps the way that doctoral courses, but also of the ways that organisations (i.e. universities in particular) translate and integrate policies of research integrity, shows that there tends to be a very strong (implicit) belief in individual responsibility. As the paper of Sarauw, Degn and Ørberg (2019) states: “In all four courses, however, the pedagogical format emphasized the individual response to the research integrity dilemmas and challenges to research integrity. While course participants were made aware of institutional support in terms of assistance in data storage, the existence and role of ethical panels, or even the availability of designated experts for them to rely on, the courses emphasized their own and their immediate research community’s responsibility for enacting research integrity by making sound choices and adhering to principles.”

The point here is that the codes of conduct themselves tend to focus on the institutional responsibilities – but if the teachers “push” the responsibilities on to the doctoral students, then we leave them in a very vulnerable position. Perhaps in order to resolve this, we need to turn from the idea of training as being for the youngest researchers, in order for them to act as “change agents” to thinking about training as a continual activity – perhaps with different focus areas depending on academic age and position.

One might also think a bit differently about the disciplinary issue, by reflecting on whether disciplines are the right delimitation in this regard. What we might call modes of knowledge production, e.g. quantitative/qualitative, empirical/theoretical, etc. might be more relevant categorizations of research, when addressing research integrity, since many of e.g. questionable research practices relate to specific ways of producing knowledge rather than specific disciplines. One element that seems to be missing from the research integrity courses in general, is the aspect of power and relations. Regardless of discipline, power is a key aspect of any (academic) relationship, and is particularly relevant to address in relation to integrity. A suggestion would be to recommend all teachers of research integrity to reflect on both their own position in their relation with doctoral students (e.g. in their problematization of the concept as such) and also the power relationships that doctoral students in general are embedded in, and their capacity to engage with or change these.


(1) Sarauw, L. L., Degn, L., & Ørberg, J. W. (2019). Researcher development through doctoral training in research integrity. International Journal for Academic Development, 24(2), 178-191.

Lise Degn, Iris Lechner contributed to this theme.

Latest contribution was March 9, 2020