The Canadian city of Montreal played host to the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity in May this year and attendees enjoyed the luxurious problem of choosing from a packed program of fascinating sessions. This personal report is therefore not comprehensive but I hope that it gives you a flavour of the event.

As someone who deals with publishing and research ethics cases on a daily basis, I found it both depressing to hear other stakeholders report similar dilemmas and reassuring to find that Elsevier’s approach is largely aligned with that of others. However, I’d like to share with you my take on those speakers who inspired me to consider these issues on a deeper level or from an entirely new angle.

Scientists are human too!

If we are to meaningfully prevent research misconduct, we need to understand the underlying behavioral psychology that drives cheating in the first place.

Professor Fred Grinnell

Professor Fred Grinnell made the case that being a scientific maverick requires passion and a burning belief in one’s hypothesis, often in the face of an unbelieving community or elusive evidence. While such passion may drive discovery, it can also be interpreted as an inherent bias – an almost irrational belief that you are right. Professor Grinnell cited examples such as James Watson’s fascinating account of the emotional, competitive race to describe the structure of DNA: a far cry from the clinical objectivity that is often held up as the ideal for scientists.

Professor Dan Ariely made a related point about the irrationality of cheating. Behavioral economics traditionally saw cheating as a logical cost-benefit analysis: how likely am I to get caught versus how much can I benefit from the deceit. The latest research indicates that such decisions are not logical whatsoever but emotional: all efforts towards preventing or disincentivizing misconduct need to recognise that emotion. For example, once someone has started to stray from the right path, they reach a crucial tipping point. If they can confess, wipe the slate clean and be rehabilitated before that point, there is hope. If the community doesn’t offer minor offenders opportunities for rehabilitation, they may feel that there is no open path back and descend into more serious offences.

He also spoke of conflicts of interest as an unavoidable fact of life: we should focus on recognizing and acknowledging them, rather than pretending they can be totally eliminated. For example, even a researcher’s most noble desire to help patients by completing a successful clinical trial can conflict with the best interests of an individual patient within that trial.

How to blow the whistle (or oboe) and still have a career afterwards

Elsevier is regularly approached by younger researchers seeking guidance on how to deal with everyday ethics issues, for example, inappropriate authorship or perhaps they have witnessed misappropriation of data. Our Ethics in Research & Publication program tries to help by providing them with tools to make the right decision, so I listened with great interest to two speakers who have decades of experience in ethics education.

Professor C K Gunsalus

Many speakers recommended Professor C K Gunsalus’ seminal guide: “How to blow the whistle and still have a career afterwards”. She advises young researchers to have a simple ’script‘ which they are comfortable with and ready to use should they need to confront a colleague’s unethical behavior, especially where there is a power imbalance, such as with a supervisor.

Professor Joan Sieber elegantly proposed the need for an even more subtle skill set than whistle-blowing: the art of blowing the oboe - in other words, handling ethics dilemmas in an effective but low-key manner that exposes the ‘blower’ to less personal risk.

Challenges facing publishers

Speakers from many publishing houses shared their experiences of developing publishing ethics policies in an ever-changing environment. In her talk on “Challenges of author responsibilities in collaborations”, Nature’s Dr Veronique Kiermer spoke of the two sides to authorship: on the one hand, it conveys credit but on the other, that credit comes with accountability. Elsevier’s own Mark Seeley highlighted the dilemma that editors and publishers face - sometimes we have to accept that we just don’t know what actually happened in the lab and may never know. While it is frustrating to make decisions without all the facts, we are committed to making the fairest decision based on the facts available to us.

Dr Bernd Pulverer

Dr Bernd Pulverer from the EMBO Journal cleverly presented real (anonymized) cases that initially looked extremely suspicious, only for a valid explanation to be found once the author was asked for more information. This was a perfect illustration of the need for editors to always give authors the benefit of the doubt and the right to respond: a need regularly reinforced to Elsevier by similar experiences.

For more coverage of the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity you may wish to read the personal accounts of Liz Wager on Elsevier Connect and Alice Meadows on Scholarly Kitchen’s website.

The Conference has also led to the development of the Montreal Statement, a draft version of which is now available to view on the Conference website. It contains a series of recommendations for individual and collaborative research.

Co-chairs of the Conference: (L-R) Sabine Kleinert, The Lancet’s Senior Executive Editor and former Vice Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and Melissa Anderson, Associate Dean of Graduate Education and Professor of Higher Education at the University of Minnesota.

Author biography

Catriona Fennell

Catriona Fennell
DIRECTOR PUBLISHING SERVICES
Following graduation from University College Galway, Ireland, Catriona joined Elsevier as a Journal Manager in 1999. She later had the opportunity to support and train hundreds of editors during the introduction of the Elsevier Editorial System (EES). Since then, she has worked in various management roles in STM Journals’ Publishing and is now responsible for its author-centricity and publishing ethics programs.