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February 22, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

The responsible conduct of research (RCR) (a.k.a. as research integrity) captures a range of ethical norms and practices which include research misconduct (generally defined as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism), authorship and publication ethics, the ethics of peer review, proper data management, mentoring, conflicts of interest, animal ethics, and the ethics of research involving humans. In some cases, topics such as animal ethics and the ethics of research involving humans are subfields of their own due to the extensive scholarship devoted to them. RCR has received considerable attention in many nations. For example, students and faculty may be required to receive education and training in RCR, several scholars study and perform research on research integrity, and many countries have developed policies to govern research integrity (Resnik and Master, 2013; Master, 2012). Yet most educational initiatives and research on research integrity center on the natural and applied sciences including, biomedical science, clinical research, engineering, and psychology. Fewer research integrity policies, education, and research is devoted to philosophy or law, or for multi or interdisciplinary fields such as bioethics.

I have previously argued that bioethicists need to pay closer attention to issues of research integrity. Why is this important? I define bioethics as an interdisciplinary field where scholars from philosophy, law, science, medicine, social science, nursing and anthropology come together to work on a common set of normative questions using a range of methods and theoretical lenses. By focusing efforts towards understanding research integrity practice, we will better understand the epistemic dimensions of our field, enhance integrity in bioethics scholarship, and be able to evaluate bioethicists more fairly. In turn, these efforts are likely to promote greater trust in bioethics by other academic scholars, among bioethicists, and the general public. Yet the field of bioethics has not paid close enough attention as it relates to research integrity issues of its own scholarship. Let’s focus on authorship as an example since this is one area that has most recently received some attention.

As an interdisciplinary area of study, it can be expected that bioethicists will bring to the field some traditional practices they have acquired from their home disciplines – the assignment of authorship being one of them. For example, scientists who are principal investigators and who perform bioethics scholarship may expect senior (last) authorship even though they may not have contributed substantively to the manuscript because that is the norm in science. Some economists and social scientists rank authors alphabetically. In law, research assistants analyze cases, make annotated bibliographies, and sometimes even write several arguments for scholars without receiving authorship because single authored papers are highly revered in law.

Evidence of the possibility of unethical authorship in bioethics was first noticed in a seminal paper by Pascal Borry and colleagues. The authors showed a rise in multi-authored papers when examining 9 bioethics journals from 1999-2003, which they attributed to a rise in empirical bioethics scholarship. As a personal anecdote, I have seen many conceptual bioethics papers having multiple authors. Not just 4, 5, or 6 authors, but upwards of 10. Many, although not all, of these multi-authored have been done in the context of workshops where the proceedings are published and all attendees are named as authors. But are these authorship practices ethical? Specific committees within the American Society of Reproductive Medicine for example publish reports and policies on specialized topics where the committee’s name is written in the authorship byline and the names of the members are contained within the acknowledgements. I am not advocating that this practice is morally better than naming all members of a deliberative committee, but it shows that different methods of authorship can be used for work published by committees.

Ethical authorship for example depends fundamentally on providing credit where credit is due. It also holds authors accountable for their work. Well established guidelines by the International Committee on Medical Journal Editors and the World Association of Medical Editors discuss the research and writing activities that are deserving of authorship credit and which warrant an acknowledgement, but these focus mainly on empirical research done in the biomedical sciences. In the case of conceptual bioethics research, an author would need to make a significant effort in terms of both thinking and writing. In addition to drafting and approving the final manuscript, a significant contribution to conceptual bioethics research might require researchers to identify an issue to study, review and analyze arguments and theories and applying them to argue a particular thesis, and/or respond to objections and counterarguments. In light of these requirements, it isn’t clear whether a 10 authored conceptual paper had everyone contribute sufficiently to warrant authorship. An evaluation of authorship guidelines of 30 bioethics journals shows that there is a lack of guidance for potential authors of bioethics journals. Most interestingly, only one of the 30 journals examined had any guidance for authorship as it related to conceptual bioethics scholarship. Combined, these results indicate that there may be some unethical authorship going on in bioethics as it does in many other areas of academic research. Bioethicists are not immune to this problem!

There are several other issues in bioethics that merit further research on research integrity including peer review, conflicts of interest as it relates to authors, peer reviewers and editors, plagiarism and the concept of self-plagiarism, and better defining conceptual bioethics research. To remedy these issues, bioethicists have to start by performing more research on research integrity as it relates to bioethics. For example what values, norms and practices play a role in authorship assignment? Guidance on authorship practices need to be strengthened which can be done by applying the knowledge of research on research integrity in bioethics. This would include making better guidelines for conceptual research and ensuring they are taken up by journals. Guidelines on authorship will help to ensure consistency in authorship assignment. Lastly, as scientists learn RCR and clinicians learn clinical and research ethics, bioethicists should also receive RCR training.

References:

Master, Z. 2012. The ethics and governance of research integrity in Canada. Health Law Review 20(3):5-14.

Resnik, D.B. and Master, Z. 2013. Policies and initiatives aimed at addressing research misconduct in high income countries. PLOS Medicine Forthcoming.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.
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