Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) has emerged as the latest catchphrase to burden US researchers who are already up to their ears in funding-agency bureaucracy. Now a US$1.5-million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is promising to help them out.
The Ethics CORE website has had a soft launch over the past year, quietly building up to 1,638 registered users on a beta version of its website, but it sent out an official launch announcement late on 20 September.
The site features curricula, courses, case studies, simulations and games for teaching scientific ethics and the responsible conduct of research. “We are a kind of one-stop-shopping for ethics resources,” says CK Gunsalus, the initiative’s director and an expert in the conduct of research at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “Say someone says hey, could you teach the RCR course next semester? You can go into our resources section and find case studies on the issues you want.”
RCR training was mandated by the US Congress in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 and implemented by the NSF for its grantees in 2010. To date, many researchers looking for information on the RCR find their way to the US Office of Research Integrity, which has an annual budget of about $9 million and reported 115,000 visits to its website in 2011 (Ethics CORE had 3,827 visits in the past month). Although the ORI does engage in research-integrity education and community outreach (see ‘Lab fakery explored in interactive training tool‘), it is better known for its emphasis on regulation and oversight — in particular, investigating misconduct allegations. In contrast, Ethics CORE has no oversight role and is oriented to providing resources and community discussion. For example, it has collected 45 professional ethics codes together in one place and hosts a number of discussion groups (at present, the more active ones are restricted to registrants, says Gunsalus).
One goal of Ethics CORE is to highlight the overlap between RCR training and business ethics, an area that is well developed in many business schools, says Gunsalus. For example, the site is now hosting a video by the Illinois College of Business (see inset), in which business students discuss their thoughts on cheating in class, which would also be relevant to science students.
Not all research ethics experts support RCR mandates. Kenneth Pimple, an adviser to Ethics CORE at Indiana University in Bloomington, argued in a 2008 article that it is counterproductive to mandate RCR training, because it then tends to be offered by universities as a generic external course or lecture added on to science courses that is not specific to each discipline, resulting in trainees failing to apply it in their own later research experiences. He stands by that today.
“I think the mandates are bureaucratic interventions being responded to in a bureaucratic way,” he says. “Universities are making the least demanding response they can.” He wants to emphasize that online resources such as Ethics CORE need to be complemented by face-to-face teaching, ideally by a scientist in the same field as the students, and enthusiastic group conversations about ethics problems.