Singapore Conference Drafts Global Guidelines on Research Integrity

While acknowledging national and cultural differences, delegates at the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity concluded that all scientists share a set of values that can serve as the foundation for global guidelines that promote research integrity.

The conference, held in Singapore on 21-24 July and co-sponsored by AAAS, will produce a draft statement of international research integrity recommendations for release this fall.

The final statement will cover a broad range of topics, including peer review, proper credit for publications, and practices to preempt research misconduct. It will also confirm that research integrity is an essential part of science’s service to society, said Mark S. Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program.

“At AAAS, we believe that high ethical standards go hand-in-hand with quality research; they are two sides of the same coin,” Frankel said in his opening remarks at the conference. “The freedom to do research cannot be separated from the ethical responsibilities that researchers have to the integrity of their research and the larger society that supports them.”

Mark S. Frankel

Mark S. Frankel

The conference drew 340 policymakers, university leaders, publishers, and government ministers from 51 countries to discuss national and international codes of conduct for scientists, integrity training for new researchers, and the responsibilities of editors and publishers in promoting ethical standards. Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, and AAAS Senior Program Associate Deborah Runkle joined Frankel in the AAAS delegation.

Participants at the First World Conference on Research Integrity, held in 2007 in Lisbon, Portugal, noted how research regulations varied from country to country, sometimes to the detriment of international collaborations. In Singapore, the attendees sought to produce a set of “international norms and standards related to research integrity that would accommodate national differences,” said Frankel, who helped to organize this year’s conference.

The harmonization of these standards is part of a larger effort by AAAS and others to support the international integration of scientific standards and values, while acknowledging their roots in diverse cultural traditions. As challenges such as climate change, disease, and cybersecurity spill across national borders, harmonization can bring together the diverse perspectives of the international scientific community to address global problems and promote global goals.

Gerald Epstein

Gerald Epstein

Seeking an international agreement on research integrity is one way to pursue harmonization, said Epstein. “Although many different groups have different conceptions of what a code of conduct should focus on, there isn’t any culture in which making up data is good,” he said. “It really ought to be possible to build an agreement here.”

Deborah Runkle

Deborah Runkle

Although most of the conference sessions focused broadly on research integrity, a few addressed specific challenges such as the impact of new technologies on plagiarism and data manipulation. “It’s really a story of how digital technology has made it easier to commit research misconduct,” said Runkle, who co-chaired a conference session on digital integrity. “But our speakers showed how digital techniques are making it easier to detect and defend against this kind of misconduct.”

Research integrity has grown beyond traditional issues of fabrication and plagiarism to encompass scientists’ responsibilities to the public, as Frankel discussed in a session on the recent “Climategate” debates. The controversy was fueled by a handful of errors discovered in the massive 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and e-mails apparently hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Repeated independent investigations have cleared the East Anglia researchers of any misconduct, and the overall conclusions of the IPCC report—that the planet is unequivocably warming and that humans are the primary driver of this warming—remain unchanged.

One critical perception during the controversy, Frankel said, was the idea that “climate researchers had crossed the line from being disinterested scientists in search of truth, to advocates for what they believed was needed in terms of a policy response.”

The notion of “responsible advocacy” isn’t unique to climate science, Frankel noted. “It’s a problem for all scientists whose work enters the policy process, and is fraught with ethical issues and the potential to weaken public trust in science.”

Epstein spoke at the conference about the ethical responsibilities of scientists involved in “dual use” research, including results from legitimate experiments on biological organisms that could facilitate the development of bioweapons. “This is the first time that I’m aware of that dual-use research has been considered in the context of integrity,” he said.

“I was excited that at least one of the candidate clauses in the draft statement recognizes that scientists have an obligation to consider the societal benefits and risks of their research,” said Epstein. “There are those who think scientists have no business extrapolating the context of their work, but that’s not a view that I think the rest of society would be very comfortable with.”

Frankel said the draft statement, crafted during four days of “serious and intense” discussions in Singapore, is now open to revisions from all of the conference participants.

“It is a start to what we hope will be a global discussion of the issues raised at the conference,” he said, “and a basis for future national or regional ethics guidelines.”

Learn more about the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity.

Learn more about the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.