Education plays an essential role in research integrity
Ambrogio Fasoli, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Research and Director of the Swiss Plasma Center, and Caroline Vandevyver, the Head of EPFL’s Research Office, spoke with us about the importance of research integrity, the challenges in this area and EPFL’s positions on the issues.
According to Ambrogio Fasoli and Caroline Vandevyver, education and communication are key to promoting research integrity and earning the trust of industry and civil society. As part of efforts to continuously improve training and prevention, EPFL recently developed an online course called Conducting Research the Right Way. The course covers the basics of research integrity and the best practices to follow, drawing on EPFL’s Directive Concerning Research Integrity and Good Scientific Practice. It’s intended for all EPFL scientists and engineers as well as anyone interested in learning more about what life is like as a researcher.
How would you define research integrity?
Ambrogio Fasoli: I’d say it’s the collection of steps a researcher can take – or not take – in order to conduct breakthrough research while meeting the highest ethical standards, so as to promote the common good. Ethics is a crucial aspect of all human endeavors, especially in the area of research. Scientific discoveries can have a broad reach in terms of geography, people and time. Today’s research findings are global and cut across generations, meaning unethically obtained results can have dramatic consequences.
Are the best research practices the same everywhere?
Caroline Vandevyver: Yes. Each country generally has its own research ethics committee, but their guidelines and recommendations are universal. They address issues related to copyright, plagiarism, conflicts of interest and more. EPFL’s directive is modeled on the recommendations of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. It applies to EPFL researchers in all fields and sets out the requirements for planning, conducting, presenting and reviewing research.
What are the biggest challenges in research integrity today?
Ambrogio Fasoli:The internet and globalization have given rise to new methods of disseminating research findings on a large scale. These methods have become so effective and widespread that the results of any improperly conducted research can spread farther and faster than ever before. But the good news is that more people are aware of the issue of research integrity and new systems have been developed for preventing fraud.
Caroline Vandevyver: EPFL is a highly international school with an array of cultures and viewpoints on education and research. That opens up a lot of opportunities but also brings challenges. The principles of research integrity are what let us all work together despite our differences and adhere to a shared set of scientific values.
What’s the role of education in all this?
Ambrogio Fasoli:Education has a fundamental role to play. Our Conducting Research the Right Way course, for example, lays out some traps researchers can fall into so that they can better avoid them. We believe the best way to train the next generation of ambassadors, ever conscious of the importance of research integrity, is by instilling best practices and serving as role models. We want these ambassadors to promote research ethics not because of being personally confronted with misdoings, but instead by realizing what a priority it is at EPFL.
Caroline Vandevyver: Our (young) scientists and engineers need to know we have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to violations of research ethics, and they must be made aware of this before they begin their research projects. We therefore have an imperative duty to inform and educate.
Are some research areas riskier than others when it comes to research integrity?
Ambrogio Fasoli:Research related to humans and/or the environment poses a particular set of challenges. But I would stress that ethical practices are pertinent – and must be followed – in all fields.
Caroline Vandevyver: I would point to healthcare research, where pressure and expectations can be especially high. Here, violations of research ethics can have serious consequences for people’s health and infringe their rights to privacy.
How can you ensure research integrity is upheld at a school like EPFL?
Ambrogio Fasoli:By issuing recommendations and codes of conduct, training our community, providing a way for people to report potential breaches anonymously (through an ombudsperson), and punishing confirmed breaches. At EPFL, we’re starting from a solid base but we nevertheless strive for continuous improvement. Our goal is to mitigate risks as much as possible and serve as an worldwide example by training excellent ambassadors.
Caroline Vandevyver: By communicating on the issue, educating our researchers, and developing training courses like the one we just mentioned – on top of the legal requirements already in place. We’ve introduced procedures for preventing violations of research ethics along with sanctions for punishing violations when they do occur. Our School always has a lot of new people coming in, so we have to make sure everyone is on board by transmitting our values effectively and transparently. We also have a duty to communicate our efforts to industry and civil society. Citizens need to have full trust in the research coming out of our School, which can be achieved by properly educating the scientists on our campus.