Where Ideas grow

Ethics and Responsible Conduct in Research

Words matter: clarifying concepts

What is Research Ethics?

Research ethics is based on the fundamental ethos of research – truth -- and addresses the questions raised when there are conflicting values or when the basic ethical principles are not respected in scientific practices. It  encompasses:

  • the design and conduct of research,
  • the respect for human participants or animals within research projects
  • the use of research results and scientific misconduct

The stakeholders are researchers, research ethics committees (RECs) or other ethics bodies, funding and sponsoring institutions, and publishers.

What is Research Integrity?

Research integrity refers to the ethical conduct of researchers, complying with legal and professional rules and standards. It is about doing good science.

Research intergrity is of special interest to researchers, funding institutions, ombudspersons, journals and other publishers and Research Integrity Offices.

One of the most important documents in the field of research integrity is The European Code of Conduct for Research Intergity (EcoC) published by ALLEA .

ALLEA highlights four fundamental principles of research integrity, namely:

Reliability that is safeguarded by the quality of research throughout the whole process: from the design and the methodology to the data analysis and the use of resources.

Honesty that must be respected at all stages of any research project: developing, undertaking, reviewing, reporting and communicating research in a transparent, fair, full and unbiased way.

Respect, as the basic principle of Ethics, must be recognized and enacted in the relationships with other colleagues, research participants, society and the environment.

Accountability for the research implies responsibility for every stage of the project: for the idea to the publication, for its management, for training, supervising and mentoring, and for its wider impacts.


What is research misconduct?

Research misconduct is defined as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in designing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results:

  • Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them.
  • Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.


Examples of research misconduct:

Misappropriation: An investigator or reviewer recklessly or intentionally:

  1. plagiarizes, or
  2. breaches confidentiality warranted at a manuscript review;

Interference: An investigator or reviewer intentionally and without permission takes or damages any research-related property of another researcher, such as biological materials, writings, data, hardware, software, among others;

Misrepresentation: An investigator or reviewer intentionally deceives, by:

  1. stating or presenting false material; or
  2. by omitting a fact that will have an impact on what is presented

Everyone plays a role

There are potential drivers of misconduct on different levels: personal, interpersonal, institutional and research community levels. Poor supervision, inadequate training, competitive pressures, personal circunstances and character traits can explain why some researchers act unethically and without scientific integrity. This means, different actors can contibute to reduce the likelihood of research misconduct taking place. What can YOU do about it?

Actually there is a slippery slope to research misconduct, so we should be aware of the common lapses:

  1. Taking shortcuts: acting carelessly can have an impact on the reproducibility of the research;
  2. Cheating: exaggerating one’s own resume, for example, can raise pressure afterwards because everyone is expecting more of him/her;
  3. Beautification of images: deleting a feature, even if it is not directly related to the results, can be scientifically meaningful;
  4. Lack of appropriate controls: without adequate controls with the experimental sample, there might be false results or misinterpretation of them;
  5. Composite images: if images are not correctly labeled, they might be interpreted wrongly
  6. Image manipulation: changing images intentionally, so that the results are altered and/or false (https://ori.hhs.gov/infographics)


What are questionable research practices?

Questionable research practices are actions that disrespect traditional values of research and may thus harm the whole research process. However they may not be as serious as misconduct.

Examples of questionable research practices are:

  • Failing to keep significant research data for the period required by law and by good standards of practice
  • Failing to keep adequate research records
  • Alleging authorship on the basis of a contribution that is not significantly related to the research;
  • Refusing to collaborate with peers, by denying access to research materials or data that support published papers;
  • Failing to use appropriate methods in order to enhance the importance of research findings;
  • Mentoring subordinates inadequately;
  • Omitting that there is lack of evidence to support the validity of speculative facts, thus leading to misrepresentation.