Ethics mentoring — lead by policy & example

Students need specific ethics training

Research institutions that make it a goal to improve ethical conduct among staff, researchers, and students engaged in research should focus on providing better ethics education, developing sound policies & procedures, and leading by example, an expert says.

Mentors and their own ethical principles and behaviors are critical to the ethical development of student researchers, says Celia Fisher, PhD, professor of psychology, Marie Ward Doty university chair and director of the Center for Ethics Education at Fordham University in The Bronx, NY. Fisher received a lifetime achievement award as part of the Awards for Excellence in Human Research Protection for 2010 from the Health Improvement Institute of Bethesda, MD.

Fisher and co-investigators have studied the impact of mentoring on psychology graduate student preparedness in conducting research responsibly. The research was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Office for Research Integrity.

Their research has found that students need a good mentor to help them feel prepared for responsible conduct of research practices. And the mentor's own ethical behavior is as important as what the mentor teaches the student.1,2

"Graduate students conducting research are not going to pick up responsible conduct of research practices simply by reading guidelines," Fisher says. "If they have a good mentor, they'll feel prepared; if they have a poor mentor they'll feel unprepared."

The mentor's role is to demonstrate ethical conduct and reinforce institutional and national ethical conduct of research policies. And it's the research institution's job to have explicit policies about research ethics and conduct, she adds.

"Students won't feel prepared unless they're in a department with specific policies and that demonstrates expectations," Fisher says. "And they need a mentor who is willing and able to provide specific, didactic information and who acts ethically."

The mentor's behavior matters: "If you don't practice what you preach then what you preach might be diluted somewhat in terms of its effect," Fisher says.

Departmental or institutional ethical policies and procedures can be based on national research guidelines for ethical conduct, as well as on specific guidelines by organizations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA). So for ethical training in psychology departments, the APA's ethics code is a good model to follow, Fisher notes.

Some of the ethical principles that might be addressed include this list that Fisher has identified in her study on mentors and graduate psychology students in the responsible conduct of research:1

  • Appropriate informed consent procedures
  • Avoiding plagiarism in writing
  • Preparing an IRB application
  • Protecting participant confidentiality
  • Knowing when to disclose confidential information, such as when there is suspected child abuse or harm to self or others
  • Data sharing with other investigators
  • Financial or personal conflicts of interest that could bias one's research
  • Potentially harmful multiple relationships with research participants who are also the investigator's students or clients
  • Federal research regulations
  • APA Ethics Code standards
  • Ensuring voluntary and noncoercive participant recruitment
  • Prohibitions against data fabrication or falsification
  • Keeping participants' identities confidential and anonymous
  • Collecting and storing data appropriately
  • Reporting research expenses accurately
  • Providing fair and noncoercive incentives to study participants
  • Debriefing procedures
  • Evaluating research risks and benefits.1

Once a research institution updates or dusts off its research conduct policies and procedures, it's important to give copies of these to all staff and students and communicate any changes.

"Have your policies and procedures updated and passed out to each student, requiring students to be familiar with these," Fisher advises. "The student handbook that everyone gets should include the APA ethics code or the ethics code for the students' discipline and the federal regulations, departmental procedures for making ethics complaints, and research conduct rules."

It's important that students feel safe in discussing ethical violations or asking questions about the research in which they are participating, so departments need to have explicit and formal procedures for students to follow.

Requiring ethics coursework for student researchers also is important, Fisher notes.

"All accredited clinical psychology programs that train practitioners are required to have an ethics course, but programs that train researchers are not required to have an ethics course, so students studying clinical programs feel more prepared, according to our research," she explains. "Research programs should require a course in research ethics to help give students more confidence in responsible conduct of research."

Medical schools also often require ethics courses for clinicians, but not in research, she adds.

"Even if doctors never do their own research, they should have to read about responsible conduct of research," Fisher says. "If they don't have some knowledge about research ethics then they won't be very good consumers of medical research, and that will limit the effectiveness of their clinical practice."

Reference:

  1. Fisher CB, Fried AL, Goodman SJ, et al. Measures of mentoring, department climate, and graduate student preparedness in the responsible conduct of psychological research. Ethics & Behav 2009; 19(3):227-252.
  2. Fisher CB, Fried AL, Feldman LG. Graduate Socialization in the Responsible Conduct of Research: A National Survey on the Research Ethics Training Experiences of Psychology Doctoral Students. Ethics & Behav 2009; 19(6):496-518.