I’m often met with blank stares when I explain my interest in research ethics for young students. People say it sounds complicated and controversial. Others ask me why it matters. The answer can easily turn into a long-winded explanation, but really it is quite simple. The world of scientific research is changing, and the way we educate young students about research must change with it.
Most of us are exposed to scientific research through social media blurbs and click-bait Facebook banners. As a result, we don’t get the full picture of how difficult research is, but trust me, scientific research is hard. It costs lots of money. It takes a long time. It is full of disappointment. Much like most things that are challenging, there is always the temptation to cut corners and a pressure to perform well. The result is sometimes research misconduct; an ongoing problem in the research world.
Research misconduct has many different definitions (some are more formal than others), but for the sake of my practicum, we thought of it as actions that cause someone to lose trust in the results of a research project. Examples include altering data, failing to acquire consent from research subjects, misrepresenting research results, or failing to disclose a conflict of interest. Traditionally, students are taught about research misconduct and ethics when they are further along in their education. This training is usually called “responsible conduct of research” training, or RCR. The exact training changes, but usually the focus is on plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification. In other words, students are taught not to steal ideas or information from each other, not to make things up, and not to alter their data.
There are a few important things to note about the current state of this training on research ethics. The first is that many students look at research ethics training as another boring lesson about the consequences of copying from a friend’s homework. Research ethics training is rarely engaging and it rarely introduces new concepts to students. The second thing is that many students begin conducting research early in their undergraduate careers or even before they leave high school. Yet they don’t receive official training on how to perform research in accordance with ethical principles until years later. The third, and possibly most important, point is that the world in which science is conducted has evolved drastically from how it was just a few decades ago.
This is where my experience comes in. As a part of a Duke University Master of Arts in Bioethics and Science Policy program, students engage in an eight to ten-week practicum experiences. Practicums are an opportunity to engage more closely with a topic or issue of interest to students. My practicum project focused on addressing these issues in research ethics education. I worked with the Director of Programs at Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society to begin developing a program that could provide an education about research ethics to young students. Sigma Xi dedicates resources specifically to enhancing the reputability of science and engaging young students in scientific research.
My practicum project was a unique combination of these two objectives with an overarching goal to educate young students about performing research in accord with both scientific and ethical principles. I also wanted to give students the tools they need to address complicated issues coming up as technology and society change. We are beginning a conversation. Students should be able to talk about misconduct and imagine it in modern situations. Am I breaking confidentiality rules if I have experimental data on my smartphone? What kind of consent must I get from my Facebook friends that take my online survey? Is it unprofessional to add my mentor on Snapchat? If I use data from a community garden, do I have to list everyone who has worked on the garden as an author?
Possibly more important than any other part of this program was the need to capture and hold the attention of students. Instead of online modules or large-group seminars, I chose to focus on small student groups and present them with the material in a way they hadn’t seen before. We might be talking about dense material, but it doesn’t mean students need to be bored and detached. Instead, they are talking to each other; they are role playing and brainstorming solutions to problems they might actually encounter.
Research ethics for young students goes beyond knowing plagiarism is wrong. It includes giving young students the tools they need to handle the stresses associated with performing research. It is knowing how to collaborate with older students, how to handle a mentorship, how to handle pressure to perform well and accept that your results are not what you wanted. Research ethics is also a window into the world of scientific research. It is a way for young students to engage with new topics and new issues they may never have thought of before.
As someone focused on communicating science to audiences of all backgrounds, it is important to me that the research I talk about is trustworthy. Building that trust begins on the ground floor with the next generation of science researchers.
Ashley Miller-Dykeman is a marine biologist and an MA candidate in the Duke Initiative for Science & Society’s Masters of Bioethics & Science Policy program.
Additional comments from Ashley:
I earned my BA in biology and with a minor in marine science from Boston University in May of 2016. During my final year as an undergraduate, I began to develop a passion for science policy; particularly how policy interacts with environmental science and communicating science to the general public. I decided to pursue my MA in bioethics and science policy at Duke with the hope of acquiring a more extensive understanding of bioethics and policy. My primary focus, however, is on science communication and bridging the gap between scientists and non-scientists.