Academic Integrity

 ” What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient”
Bodie Thoene, author.

As young researchers and scholars, we are expected to conduct our work in accordance with principles of “academic integrity“. At some point in our studies – undergraduate or graduate – we are taught the basics about research ethics, often through idealized examples of what is considered right or wrong. We are told on countless occasions how serious “plagiarism” is. We submit our carefully-thought-out research proposals to the Ethics Board for review. We are taught by librarians and Professors how to cite other authors and properly reference ideas and findings, in order to differentiate between what is ours, and what is not.

Integrity is defined as the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Academic integrity, then, is applying these values of honesty and decency to the academic/research setting, and having these principles guide our choices and actions. The Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities emphasizes that “McGill places a great deal of importance on honest work, the act of scholarship, and the fair treatment of all members of the university community, and demands a rigid insistence on giving credit where credit is due”. Of course, this not only holds during our time here at McGill, but outside this institution as well; if we are to be decent and fair in our profession, then these values should be adhered to even if a Handbook does not explicitly dictate them.

It may be rather easy to discern right from wrong in clear-cut cases such as blatant, intentional plagiarism and cheating. But what about the less clear-cut aspects of our work and everyday experience? What about the blurrier lines, the grey areas, where the distinction between right and wrong may not be as straightforward, and where opinions in a given situation are likely to differ widely based on individuals’ disciplines, experiences, cultural backgrounds and expectations? Whether we are PhD students or established professors and researchers, we soon come to realize that the reality of our world may be quite far from the ideals that we once discussed in Ethics classes or read about in guidelines of conduct. Many pressures are at play – “publish or perish” is the mantra we must go by, at least in the sciences, and things like career goals and deadlines tend to make us bend the rules.

To bend the rules, though, we must first be aware of the rules. Yet these grey areas may be the most dangerous of all, as the rules are anything but straightforward. For example, here are some questions which are quite difficult to answer:

  • In a collaborative work, how do we determine the order of the authors? Should the first author be the person who came up with the original idea, the person who did the most work, or the person who wrote up most of the manuscript?
  • What is the level of input necessary to become a co-author?
  • Should committee members and/or researchers on the same grant be co-authors, or simply be mentioned in the Acknowledgements?
  • How much feedback on a manuscript warrants authorship, rather than being thanked in the Acknowledgements?
  • What is valued more in terms of input: Intellectual input? Time, equipment and resources? Data collection? Data analyses?
  • If someone was promised to be a co-author in advance, but did not put in the work and/or did not respond to e-mail updates, does this person still deserve to be on the author list?
  • When should Undergraduate/Master’s research assistants be considered as co-authors on a manuscript resulting from their help on a PhD student’s dissertation project?
  • Who does the data belong to? If the student who collected the data leaves the lab or loses interest, could another student continue with follow-up work without asking and/or involving the person who collected the data?
  • If a student is building upon a previous study, do previous researchers have to be co-authors if they don’t contribute directly to the new work? Does this differ if the previous work is unpublished rather than published?
  • What constitutes plagiarism? What if you do it unconsciously? There is only a limited number of ways to say the same thing – what if you are influenced unintentionally by the papers you have read on the topic?
  • How do we re-use our own work and our own writing? Should we always paraphrase, or is copy/pasting from our own previous papers acceptable, at least in technical writing such as the Methods sections of our papers? Is there such a thing as self-plagiarism?
  • Is it deceptive to submit an identical abstract to two conferences? Is it deceptive to present the very same (recycled) poster at multiple conferences? Or, should an effort always be made to add new analyses and new findings, and to present the same work from a different angle?

Tricky questions, aren’t they? They get even trickier when you add all sorts of other factors, such as the relative contributions of everyone involved, the hierarchy within a lab setting, time constraints, budget limitations, what is needed for professional advancement (e.g. to obtain a tenure-track position), etc. It all gets even more complicated if it is an interdisciplinary work where common practices vary across disciplines, or when many collaborators are involved at different stages in a given project, over a number of years. It’s almost as though we need to take each of these scenarios as they arise, because each one is different and more beautifully complicated than the last, and each one may lead to a handful of different perspectives and solutions. It seems like the only way to prepare ourselves in advance would be to think hypothetically about all sorts of different situations, and to reflect on the optimal solution in each case.

Well, that’s exactly what McGill’s Academic Integrity Day workshop sought to do. An annual event that is brilliantly organized by Skillsets, this year’s Academic Integrity day brought together nearly 100 students from different disciplines and levels of experience (undergraduate, Master’s, early/advanced PhD), as well as a panel of experts consisting of Deans, Program Directors, Professors from different Faculties, as well as McGill’s Research Integrity Officer. This panel of experts had carefully designed a series of hypothetical cases that dealt with grey issues in authorship and re-using work (others’ or one’s own), and these cases touched on many of the questions listed above. The attendees were seated at different round tables, forming groups of about 10 students per table. Students were encouraged to discuss each of these cases together and then present their solutions to the panel and to participants at other tables. And oh, were there varying opinions!

The goal of Academic Integrity Day was to introduce some of these more complicated issues in “academic integrity” in order to increase our awareness of these grey areas and how best to avoid misconduct and (even unintentionally) deceptive behaviour. The key point that was emphasized throughout the workshop was how important it is to start a conversation about these issues with our collaborators and supervisors, openly and straightforwardly, BEFORE things turn sour (because they sometimes do). Discussing the hypothetical cases also served to get us all thinking about some potential issues that we may eventually be confronted with for real, and we learned that we should feel comfortable bringing up any concerns or questions with our collaborators, as it is our right to share with our collaborators what we believe is fair in a specific situation. We were also made aware of the many resources available at our disposal and the many experts at McGill who are there to listen and offer advice if one feels like their rights have not been respected and there is absolutely no way to resolve the matter within the lab first.

Academic Integrity Day was stimulating and beneficial to the majority of students there (as a poll and my own personal conversations with people revealed!). I highly recommend that you attend it next year, whether you have burning questions about academic integrity or not. If you don’t have any questions yet, some questions are guaranteed to arise during or after the workshop, as you reflect more and more on these issues. In fact, I wish it could be mandatory for all PhD students to attend AI day at least once during their residency at McGill! These issues are omnipresent in academia and research settings in different shapes or forms, and in varying degrees of severity, not only at McGill but everywhere. They can be the source of great anxiety and of serious miscommunications, and yet, most of the time, they can likely be avoided by engaging in open conversations and asking honest questions.

If I could summarize the one and only clear-cut answer that arose from this workshop, it would best be conveyed in the form of an idiom: “Honesty is the best policy“. If you’re not sure — ask. If you want to be first-author on a paper — ask what level of input and work you’ll need to put in to earn it. If you would like to base yourself on someone else’s unpublished work or materials — ask first and acknowledge them. If you want to do a follow-up study with someone’s data in your lab — ask if they object or if they would like to be involved. If you feel like you’re unsure how to act properly — ask for a second opinion. If you feel like your contributions are not being properly acknowledged — ask to talk about it (professionally) and clear the air.

Honesty is the best policy, not only in our interactions with our collaborators, but also in how we give back to the research community. We are fortunate to do what we do, to have relatively flexible schedules and lives, and to be funded for investigating really interesting unanswered questions about the world around us. Honesty also entails not taking advantage of this privilege by submitting the same work to multiple places without furthering it and bettering it. This also goes for recycling our writing.

We are all human, and there is always room for error. But there is also always room for mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness, and efforts must always be made to rectify a situation or clear up miscommunications as soon as we are made aware of them.

My perspective is that we must do our best to be as just and honest as we can be in the way we do things. That others will behave with similar integrity with us is all we can hope for in our crazy, pressure-filled whirlwind of an academic setting.

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