July 10, 2014 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Both parts I and II of this blog were originally published as a commentary in the Office of Research Integrity’s Newsletter (http://ori.hhs.gov/newsletters) Volume 22, Number 2, March 2014 and has been reproduced with permission for the AMBI blog.

In Part I, published last month, I discussed my experience organizing and developing a responsible conduct of research (RCR) workshop for stem cell scientists that was held at the Till and McCulloch Meeting in October 2013 as part of Canada’s Stem Cell Network at http://www.stemcellnetwork.ca. In Part 2, I discuss the importance of developing RCR pedagogy that includes both lecture and informational components, and provides ethical cases such that students have a rich understanding of normative, policy, and practical aspects to different RCR topics.

Case-based learning has a place in bioethics and moral analysis. Past cases of scandals and tragedies in human research have established ethical norms and practices and have spurred the creation of international codes of conduct. Today, case-based ethics pedagogy is also the foundation of most training programs in clinical ethics and clinical ethics consultation. Cases are effective in RCR training because they engage scientists in thinking about ethical situations that occur in the lab. These are situations that they can relate to, and some may be more commonplace (e.g., the stress of results not working out, favoritism, or authorship disputes), whereas others may be scenarios they heard about (e.g., a questionable retraction or possible contamination of solutions). Most of the second-year AMC course on scientific integrity is to analyze and discuss cases. Similarly, the interactive video at the RCR workshop was successful in getting trainees to think about the ethical situation encountered by the graduate student. Although there is little data on whether case-based training actually results in better ethical decision making, intuitively it seems a critical component if scientists are to be ethically aware of their practice in relation to others.

Although cases are essential elements to training practitioners, they have finite value if they are not integrated with knowledge-based components. As a trained scientist, I can’t imagine being given a case about ethical authorship practices without having some background on what is ethical authorship and why it is important. For example, mentioning that authorship is based on giving someone due credit and that scientists are required to be honest and fair and to provide others with opportunities are important aspects to convey.  Some elements must be mentioned if the cases are to make sense. One is reporting some interesting facts, such as a study showing that about 10 percent of scientists said they have engaged in unethical authorship. Another is pointing out that most science and medical journals have authorship policies and explaining what those policies mean. Moreover, providing such information gives scientists the tools they need to further look up policies and information if they should ever encounter a similar case. A discussion about norms, practices, and policies needs to be incorporated in some manner into RCR pedagogy directed to scientists to provide a thorough picture.

Having a lecture followed by one or more cases is certainly one way to teach individual RCR topics, and a way that worked in the RCR workshop. But knowledge-based instruction can be incorporated in different ways. In our second-year Discussions in Scientific Integrity course at AMC, we have students lead each class with a synopsis of the topic, and we choose to fill in gaps as we deal with cases. How you deliver information in RCR classes can take on many forms. It can be through introductions of topics led by students, a lecture beginning each class, or integration of information into the cases. Similarly, delivery of cases can be done in different ways, including role playing, having class break out into smaller groups to later convene and discuss findings, or using an interactive video or written cases.

Together, knowledge-based material needs to be integrated with case-based learning as the necessary two ingredients for effective RCR education for biomedical scientists. Case-based ethics training in RCR is valuable because it promotes ethical awareness of situations that might occur in a lab and provides knowledge and skills on how to best handle them. This training also engages scientists because they can relate to the cases, which causes them to reflect on ethical situations by putting themselves into the roles of the different actors to better understand their values, motives, and reasons. And certainly, providing some important background facts on a topic and drawing them to resources are absolutely necessary for researchers to get an overview of the topic. Incorporating developments from research on research integrity into lectures and workshops will provide current information and demonstrate the evolving nature of the field. This training format incorporating important knowledge-based information and cases for biomedical scientists will help students realize that ethical situations in research are unlikely to be black and white.  Students will also realize that how situations are handled is a key part of ensuring they don’t escalate and in preserving lab morale and collegiality.

More work on the effectiveness of RCR training is needed, especially in understanding whether training improves ethical behavior. It should be noted, though, that providing RCR training is intrinsically important. It raises awareness and highlights the importance of the ethical conduct of research and the role of scientists in society.

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.