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Recently, Rita Faria of the School of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University of Porto, visited the Erasmus School of Law. She presented the findings of her research about scientific misconduct in a lunch lecture of the research programme Monitoring, Safety & Security and a workshop for PhD students of the Erasmus Graduate School of Law. In a (digital) conversation with Rita, she tells us more about what scientific misconduct and integrity is, or could be, and what’s needed to prevent and stop scientific misconduct.
Which dilemmas regarding scientific misconduct and integrity have you been confronted with in your own research?
I remember, at some point, when I started to think about publishing my research, I had to go through the reasoning of who, if anyone of the people supporting or helping me with the research, should be included as co- author. That had me thinking about the effective role those people had in the work. So I had to go through the learning process of what an author is, what are his/hers responsibilities as such, the different levels or types of contributions and help people may give to your work and that may turn them into co-authors or simply get acknowledged.
Secondly, I had to think about how to guarantee anonymity and confidentiality to the information my participants gave me about sensitive subjects, such as suspicions about colleagues committing misconduct. I had to ensure the participants’ anonymity but also to guarantee that no personal or institutional information about cases or colleagues mentioned in the interviews would be disclosed in transcripts.
Finally, I had a participant that allowed me to record the interview but asked me to delete it as soon as I finished the dissertation. It rose questions about data archiving and management, but also on informed consent to participate, which, in this case, was dependent of me accepting this request.
What do you consider scientific misconduct?
It’s a controversial concept in the literature. I tend to tell it apart from scientific or research ethics, which I consider to be about moral values and fundamental rights, such as not endanger your participants’ wellbeing in any way, for instance. I also tend to tell it apart from academic misconduct, which are problematics behaviors committed by students, when they cheat in their exams or plagiarize their assessments. I, personally, consider that scientific misconduct is about behaviors or situations usually considered as such (FFP-fabrication and falsification of data, and plagiarism), but also include the so-called QRP- questionable research practices. These usually include situations which people have more trouble deciding on whether they are wrong and why. Think, for instance, on someone who commits self-plagiarism and, in that way, can improve his/her CV for a job position. I would also include in scientific misconduct, those problematic situations created by “external actors” on the research process, such as biased peer review, or commissioners of research asking to change results.
Scientific misconduct is a controversial concept in the literature.
Which behaviors should researchers be careful of?
I think that more important than being careful of behaviors, we should be aware of our (potential) lack of critical thinking about what we usually do as researchers, what we are asked to do, the conditions we have to really produce quality research. Accepting restrictions to scientific freedom and autonomy, precarious job conditions, pressure to produce and absence of necessary resources to produce rigorous research, accepting all that can be very dangerous.
What should researchers do to prevent or stop scientific misconduct?
To prevent scientific misconduct, I think researchers should use, in such cases, the same analytical, rigorous and critical stance they use while researching and trying to understand the world or any specific research topic. We need to know more about scientific misconduct, analyze available data, instead of using speculative accounts to know what it is. We need to look at the “bigger picture”, which is the current scientific system in Europe, instead of blaming “bad apples”. We may try to prevent scientific misconduct if we enter the scientific community, research groups or teams, willing to share, dialogue and freely critique, with no fear from repercussions.
What each of us can do to stop scientific misconduct, may depend on internal or hierarchical established power structures within research groups or organizations. Who is committing the act? Is it a senior colleague, a junior one? So, probably the person witnessing the situation should search for someone impartial to power struggles, to present the situation. However, people should probably address this from a perspective of helping out the colleague who was seen doing something wrong, carefully avoiding labeling, especially in case of younger, pressured colleagues.
Stopping scientific misconduct should be addressed from a perspective of helping out the colleague, carefully avoiding labelling, especially in case of younger, pressured colleagues
Additionally, I suggest using scientific misconduct as a topic of research. We need to know more about it in order to better assess it. Screen scientific misconduct while using the scientific method, which means studying it the same way as we study other empirical and problematic or sensitive realities. This way we can assess good practices, have decisions based on evidence, etc. It is necessary to understand the deep causes and processes that may trigger such behaviors: pressuring working environments, biased reviews, close relationships with commissioners of research who do not respect the scientific expertise enough. Also, researchers should probably aim at having their research conducted according to integrity and methodological robustness, instead of giving up to the strains of getting funding (no matter what), or getting recognition (no matter what). In sum, resist the broader culture of economic exploitation of the scientific endeavor in an environment characterized by work precariousness, predatory journals and lack of time and resources.
Both pictures were taken by Richard Staring.