Changing attitudes to research ethics and integrity

blog photo scaled
Image: CCO (

As a recent addition to the researcher development team at the IAD, one of the first tasks I was given was to develop a set of webpages to collate information on research integrity at Edinburgh. Having been both a PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher in the recent past, my first reaction to hearing the words ‘ethics’ and ‘integrity’ was, “that sounds a bit boring”. However, one of the first things I was advised to do was look at the current and ongoing inquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into research integrity in the UK. Suffice to say that I found it absolutely fascinating. Watching a panel give evidence about the need for the culture of science and research to change, and the risks that the pressure to ‘publish or perish’ poses, really hit home. It made me realise how much more there is to ethics and integrity than just filling out the necessary forms, and it made me wonder how I had got it so wrong to begin with. Research ethics and integrity are far from boring, and upholding research integrity is fundamentally what it means to do excellent research.

A POSTnote on the extent of research misconduct in the UK shows that research misconduct is on the rise in the UK (1) . A survey conducted by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2) found that 26% of researchers have felt tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards, and 58% say they know of others who have felt this temptation[1]. Most cases of misconduct are not intentional or from malignant intent, and indeed the conditions which are needed for someone to cross that line and commit fraud or misconduct are all too common in our current research environment (3). In a recent speech at the annual UKRIO conference, the chairman of the inquiry into research integrity, the Rt Hon Normal Lamb MP, stated that whether misconduct is done through sloppiness, poor research design, or outright fraud, the consequences can be dramatic (4). Further adding that integrity has to run through every piece of research, and must be embedded in the attitudes and behaviours of researchers.

This last point is particularly important, as this is where we, as research leaders, supervisors, mentors and role models, can have a real impact. The attitude that we take towards research ethics and integrity, and the way that our students see us conduct our research, will have a significant impact on the behaviours and attitudes of future researchers. Indeed, some of the recommendations from the Nuffield Council include “cultivating an environment in which ethics [and integrity] is seen as a positive and integral part of performing research”, and “instilling good values in students and staff” (2).

However, 30% of respondents to the Nuffield Council’s survey (2) reported that research governance and contractual processes were having a negative or very negative effect on research quality, particularly amongst more senior academics, adding that governance processes were overly bureaucratic, repetitive, time-consuming, and not understood or taken seriously by all. In addition, it was suggested that ethics review committees may not always have enough knowledge or experience to adequately assess every piece of research.

The challenge of instilling a positive attitude around research ethics and integrity is no small feat, and ensuring that researchers (particularly early career researchers), ethics committee members, and research leaders have appropriate training are amongst some of the key recommendations for tackling this challenge (2). At Edinburgh we have a lot of support and training available, including training on responsible research conduct for new PhD students, and training for new supervisors and PIs. However, it is still worth considering how we as researchers voice our negative opinions and experiences around governance processes or ethics and integrity review, and we need to consider how that comes across to our students and early career researchers. If we groan at the thought of filling in yet another form and treat our ethics reviews and integrity checks like tedious additional work or tick box exercises, we risk creating a future generation of researchers who will equally view ethics and integrity with negativity, and not take research governance, ethics and integrity seriously.


[1] A large proportion of the survey respondents and event participants work in either bioscience or medicine and are early-career researchers.

Emily Woollen

Emily is an Academic Developer at the IAD, working in the Researcher Development team. She has a BSc and a PhD in Ecological and Environmental Sciences, and has worked for several years as an interdisciplinary postdoctoral researcher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *