Virtues in research integrity

What is this about?

‘Virtue’ derives from ancient Greek - ἀρετή - and means ‘excellence of any kind’. To be virtuous means to strive towards living in compliance with one’s full potential, intellectually as well as morally. The reference to full potential shows that the ability to develop a virtue is innate; yet, in order to become virtuous, one needs to practice. A distinction can be made between intellectual or epistemological virtues and moral virtues. Both types of virtues are character traits, relevant for research integrity, as doing good research requires intellectual and moral excellence.

Why is this important?

Research integrity is not only about following rules. It also requires personal engagement and competence. These requirements show that research integrity requires virtues. A person who is virtuous, not merely follows methodological or moral rules, but embodies goodness or excellence (1). Goodness or excellence in research depends on what we do, as well as on who we are, intellectually and morally. The possession of a virtue says something about this person as a person. So, to tell of a person that she is imaginative or honest, is to say something about this person’s character. Aristotle described virtue as ‘the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his work well.’ (2) MacIntyre defined virtue as ‘an acquired human quality the possession and the exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods’ (3). MacIntyre, therefore, emphasized the importance of practice for the expression and development of virtues.

Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of virtues, intellectual and moral virtues. Examples of the first kind of virtues are critical thinking, curiosity, imaginativeness, perseverance and open-mindedness. Examples of moral virtues are courage, honesty, generosity, fair-mindedness, and justice. Although intellectual and moral virtues are distinct, they have in common that they are both character traits.

A number of attempts have been made to identify which virtues are essential for good scientific practice (4, 5). These include: honesty; curiosity; attentiveness or observance; perseverance or patience; objectivity; humility to evidence; skepticism; meticulousness; courage; collaboration; resoluteness; accountability; availability; competency; reliability; sincerity; creativity; accountability; punctuality; truthfulness; selflessness; reflexivity; clarity of purpose; collaborative spirit; fairness; loyalty; moderation; positivity/open-mindedness; respectfulness.

According to Aristotle, a virtuous person has the disposition to act in accordance with the right middle. A virtuous person is able to see and do what is right in the specific situation, and knows how to avoid the extremes of showing too little or too much. An example of a virtue is courage. Someone who is brave knows how to find the right middle between the extremes of cowardice on the one hand and recklessness on the other. That applies not only to war, to the Greeks an important example of human action. It also applies to interacting with people with whom one collaborates. For example, if the person makes a mistake, it may be important to tell her ' the truth '. That requires courage, as the right middle between making an allusion in the hope that the other understands the message, and confronting the other in public with the fact that she does something wrong. What is the right middle depends on the situation, that is, the seriousness of the error, the openness of the other for the message, and the ability of the person who performs the act. In some cases the right middle is closer to being cautious; in other cases more emphasis is needed.

Being virtuous means living in accordance with one’s natural potential. Thus, virtues refer to human nature. Yet, developing virtues requires training and exercise in practice. In practice, one learns to see what is the importance of, for example, honesty as openness to criticism, and how it can be adequately shaped. How much attention should you devote to literature before you do a study? When does that literature help sharpen the mind, and when does it lead to confusion? Of course it is important to study existing investigations before one starts to research, for example by doing a systematic review. But how to ensure that this really gives an insight into what was previously found, and provides a connecting factor for further research? The same applies to the discussion of possible explanations for results of own research. What literature do you refer to, and how do you use it to sharpen the findings? Do the quoted articles really help them to better understand the outcomes of the study, draw conclusions and formulate new questions? The answer to such questions does not come from textbooks, but requires insights and skills that are already acquired in practice.

For whom is this important?

Students, Researchers, Supervisors, Research integrity trainers

What are the best practices?

Virtues relevant for research integrity are described in the European Code of Conduct (6). The ECoC defines principles and practices of good research, and includes the virtues of reliability, honesty, respect and accountability.

Robert Pennock has studied the relevance of virtue theory for research integrity. Theoretically, he links philosophy of science and virtue ethics, arguing that science requires both intellectual and moral virtues. Empirically, he has investigated the perspective of researchers on virtues which comprise the ideals of good science (7). He also has developed a virtue-based approach to science ethics training (8).

Various training approaches to train ethics and research integrity focus on virtues of good research and good researchers. To help trainers and trainees to talk about virtues, a ‘glossary’ of virtues is desired. A list of relevant virtues was created by the VIRT2UE project. For each virtue a combination of alternative words that together describe the meaning of the virtue, is proposed.

Accountability - Responsibility, answerability

Availability - Efficaciousness, readiness to come to effect

Clarity of purpose - Visionary, targeted, zeal

Collaborative spirit - Cooperative, synergistic, sharing

Competency - Expertise, proficiency, capability

Compliance - Willingness to conform/follow

Courage - Braveness, heroic resoluteness

Creativity - Inventiveness, imagination, originality

Critical awareness - Analytic, insightful, rationality

Curiosity - Eagerness to know or to explore, inquisitiveness

Diligence - Earnestness, perseverance in carrying out action

Empathy - Understanding, compassion, recognition

Fairness - Justice, equity

Honesty - Truthfulness, candidness, sincerity

Humility - Humbleness, modesty

Loyalty - Faithfulness, allegiance, fidelity

Moderation - Temperance, patience

Morality - Ethicalness, righteousness, decency

Objectivity - Neutrality, unbiased, impartiality, open-minded

Open-mindedness - Willing to reconsider views, receptiveness, tolerance

Patience - Perseverance, willingness to endure

Perseverance - Dedication, determination, persistence

Positivity - Alacrity, willingness

Punctuality - Readiness, promptness, steadiness

Reflexivity - Thoughtfulness, contemplativeness, deliberation

Reliability - Trustworthiness, accuracy, dependability

Resoluteness - Determination, persistence, purposefulness

Respectfulness - Politeness, having good manners, courtesy

Responsibility - Accountability, liable, trustworthiness, truthfulness

Selflessness - Altruism, benevolence

Sincerity - Earnestness, truthfulness, veracity, honesty

Thoroughness - Care, scrupulousness

Transparency - Clarity, not hiding, honesty, openness

Trustworthiness/truthfulness - Honesty, accuracy, sincerity


(1) Hursthouse, R. and Pettigrove, G (2016). “Virtue Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessible at:

(2) Aristotle (1925). Nicomachean ethics (translation D.W. Ross). Oxford: Clarendon Press

(3) MacIntyre, A. C. (2014). After virtue. London: Bloomsbury.

(4) Pennock, R. in Abstract nr PM-064. (2017) Available at: (Accessed: 24th August 2017).

(5) Marusic, A. (confidential) Report on the results from the stakeholder focus groups.

(6) All European Academies. The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity. 2017.

(7) Pennock, R.T. (2015). Fostering a culture of scientific integrity: Legalistic vs. scientific virtue-based approaches. Professional Ethics Report, 28(2), 1-2

(8) Pennock, R.T., O’Rourke, M. (2017). Developing a scientific virtue-based approach to science ethics training. Science and Engineering Ethics, 23(1) 243-262

Guy Widdershoven, Jan-Helge Solbakk, Fenneke Blom contributed to this theme.

Latest contribution was October 23, 2019