She recently helped draft a research integrity oath for Ph.D.s in France. We discuss with her research ethics and integrity in practice.
Most people think of ethics as a set of rules for distinguishing between right and wrong. But what is research ethics and integrity in practice?
Stéphanie Ruphy: What we mean when we speak about research integrity are good research practices. There are four principles behind these norms of behaviour. At a European level, the four values that are put forward in the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity are reliability, honesty, respect, and accountability. These are the values in the background. Then, you have more specific, action-oriented norms that may vary to some extent from one scientific field to another. They may also vary over time. What is accepted as a good research practice today may not be accepted in fifty years or may not have been accepted fifty years ago. This is important because, when you refer to standards of good behaviour, you have to keep in mind that they might change with the development of new research tools and methods.
Research integrity concerns not only individual researchers but also scientific institutions, funding agencies, publishers and evaluation agencies. There are many actors in the ecosystem, not only individual researchers. Research integrity also concerns several aspects of scientific life – the very process of producing scientific knowledge, but also collaborating with other people, peer reviewing, managing research projects, publishing and sharing results, etc. When you speak publicly as a scientist, this is also a professional activity that should be guided by research integrity norms.
What is at stake with research integrity is the issue of trust between members of scientific communities and trust between researchers and other members of society.
You recently joined a team that drafted a research ethics oath for Ph.D.s in France. Why is this needed?
Stéphanie Ruphy: It is a research integrity oath. In France, every Ph.D. recipient should now take that oath when they defend their thesis. It is needed for several reasons. The first is that it makes graduation events more formal. It gives more value to the very fact that you have completed a Ph.D., but that is not the most important reason. What is more important is that it is really a nice way of giving research integrity more visibility and it also allows young scientists to grasp these issues. When they start their Ph.D. studies, they have to sign a charter that mentions the oath and they know that they will have to take the oath at the end of their studies.
The text of the oath validates the scientific method itself. Most Ph.D. recipients will not continue with a career in academic research; most of them will go to the private sector or elsewhere. The oath certifies that you, as a doctor, have a privileged, honest relationship to empirical data and rigorous argumentation.
This oath is not legally binding. It is not like the Hippocratic Oath. The research integrity oath doesn’t indicate that you have joined a professional body. However, it is important because, if you have taken the oath, you can invoke it by resisting engaging in behaviour that is in tension with the principles of research integrity.
Of course, no one is naïve enough to believe that taking an oath will solve all the problems, but it is one piece of a larger puzzle to foster a culture of research integrity.
Would you promote the idea of such an oath within the EU and the European research area?
Stéphanie Ruphy: Some universities in certain countries already expect their Ph.D. recipients to take an oath. However, France is the first country in the world to make it compulsory for every Ph.D. recipient. It is too soon to see the effect of this oath. Nevertheless, of course I would be in favour of adopting it in other countries as a means, among others, of promoting integrity.
The pandemic showed there is a need to speed up the process of sharing and communicating scientific results. It created new practices of sharing research knowledge and scientific data online, without peer review. How can researchers find the balance between sharing results quicker and not compromising the quality of science?
Stéphanie Ruphy: During the pandemic, there was an increase in preprints and sometimes the results presented in these preprints may have been used as part of political decisions before being peer reviewed. What we observe today is that there are many initiatives taking advantage of new digital tools and platforms, which allow you to go beyond the set stages from preprint to publication. I think this is an interesting and important trend that makes the self-correction process for science more continuous. Sometimes preprints may be retracted before being submitted for publication. Moreover, we now have an additional filter that is very important for research integrity – namely post-publication peer review, where published papers can be criticised. So, there are now three stages where papers can be criticised: preprint, submission for publication and post-publication. Some actors are trying to develop a continuous process of self-correction by peer review. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, but it is certainly a new way to share scientific results faster without having to give up peer reviewing.
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