Street vs Book RCR Smarts

But first … an NYT Magazine feature on The Moral Instinct. And in February, check out The Scientist for a discussion by C. Neal Stewart Jr. and J. Lannett Edwards on their approach to teaching a successful research ethics class. In the meantime, some additional perspective by Edyta Zielinska.

Gradually, the data are coming in regarding whether required RCR training and/or real-world ethics “lessons” affect the behavior of researchers. Most recently, McGee et al. offer results from a qualitative study of doctoral students and postdocs before and after a formal RCR course at the Mayo Clinic. Interestingly, none of the authors are from the Mayo.

Interviews were conducted ($40 compensation, but only 30 of 127 class matriculants participated in the study) to learn whether prior experiences influence how a scientist reacts to and is or is not influenced by a formal (weekly lecture) RCR course. Of the 30 study subjects, 13 reported having already taken a formal RCR course (in one interview, a participant says he/she has “done this … five or six times”!), and 15 had “informal” RCR training (not defined, but I assume via mentor, perhaps workshops or seminars or even online modules … this irritates me because I’ve seen “informal RCR training” used elsewhere without being well defined).

The authors opted to focus on two lectures based on results of a small pilot study: Authorship (RCR students expressed strong opinions & frank disagreement about material taught) and Conflict of Interest (RCR students had little prior knowledge & displayed much confusion about this concept). At the Mayo, 2 different instructors presented these lectures.

[Speaking of authorship, Science notes that the Association of American Publishers hasn’t given up its fight against the newly passed (in the appropriations bill) open access and wants to ensure that the NIH gets public input into the formal rulemaking … though this seems a tad late given the Notice released on the same.]

The Authorship lecturer presented the ICMJE guidelines. The COI instructor sought to heighten awareness of the various types of COI (beyond financial) that might be encountered. The article is 32 pages long, so I’ll only capture a few examples here. The COI discussions are fascinating (e.g., “Maybe I would take $10,000 [out of $60,000 offered] and have $50,000 go to my research account“), but since we’ve chatted about authorship and author accountability here already, I’ll stick with these cases.

First, a comment by the authors in the discussion :

… most trainees had experience with, or at least could anticipate, authoring papers and already had ideas about what one should contribute in order to justify authorship. They were all acutely aware of how publications are make-or-break for their careers, so the stakes for not getting their names on papers are very high. For some people, the high bar for authorship suggested by the instructor conflicted with either their personal views of fairness or their prior experiences with authorship inclusion decisions which were more liberal than the rules given in class. Some expressed concern that they would have to achieve this high bar whereas others would not. Thus, some resisted the higher standard of authorship or refused to accept it. The fact that discussions in the class revealed that other students also disagreed with the proposed rules probably made it more socially acceptable to reject them, and the ambiguity generated by different labs making different authorship decisions further justified their rejection. This is an example of just one of many ways in which theoretical normative behaviors are presented in RCR training that are not consistently observed in real life. The absence of enforced rules that are agreed to by the entire scientific community makes achieving adherence to a purported standard very difficult.

Here is one interview conducted after the RCR Authorship lecture (would have loved to watch the interviewer facial expression):

I: How do you feel about courtesy authorship or honorary authorship?

P: I’m for it.

I: You are?

P: I think in some situations. I’ve worked with people in the last few years who are known in the field a lot more than I am because I’m starting and actually I was thinking about writing up a paper, and in this situation, I think sometimes if you can put their name on a paper, even if it has a small contribution and then it goes to a journal where they’ve seen their name before, sometimes that can be the difference, whether it diminishes your work or notit gives you a better standpoint. (Ph.D. student with prior informal RCR training)

And another with someone who has learned through the classroom of life what an uncomfortable issue authorship can be:

I: Do you feel prepared to deal with issues of authorship or do you feel unclear and want more guidance?

P: I think I’m prepared. I think it’s just an uncomfortable topic and I hope that when I’m a PI that I do well with it, that I can deal with it well, and I can make people feel comfortable about authorship. But I will say that I don’t always feel comfortable bringing it up, like now. Oh, I see this future publication. I think we should talk about authorship. I don’t feel comfortable with that. But also it is something that my boss does not seem to be one who deals well with conflict, so I kind of hope it works out well. He’s just not the type of person that will define authorship, so I should probably say something. (Ph.D. Postdoc with much experience)

And then there is this rather unsettling exchange (after the class):

I: How do you think you’ll handle it (peer review) when you’re reviewing grants?

P: The lecturer did say if the ideas that are presented in that grant give you new ideas, then that’s not stealing their stuff, so I think I am going to use that as a defense mechanism and just volunteer to look at as many grants as I can. (Ph.D. student with past informal RCR training)

I think, actually, this is the honest take-home message … people can and will justify their own actions, often with a fluid, flexible set of values and often based on what seems to be acceptable to those around them. If everyone around you says contributing a reagent is sufficient grounds for authorship, join the herd, especially since that is how you want to be treated when it comes time to pad your CV. Again, I think the only way to head off the “this is how it’s always been done” (not just authorship … peer review, grant $ distribution, P&T struggles, nasty get-even PhD defense fights, leaving out inconvenient data, etc. etc.) is to start raising awareness sooner … perhaps in kindergarten if the teen ethics headlines & survey results continue on their current disheartening downward trend.



  1. PhysioProf said

    I am totally convinced that telling people to do certain shit, or refrain from doing certain shit, is about the worst possible way to get people to actually do, or refrain from doing, that shit.

    BTW, WTF is “RCR”? Research Conduct and Rioting?

    Entertaining new blog, PhysioProf. Responsible Conduct of Research. – writedit

  2. bikemonkey said

    And yet billions are spent on advertising telling people to buy certain shit. What idiots!

  3. […] Research Ethics, NIH Advice In the same issue of Accountability in Research as the report on the effectiveness of RCR education, Kevin Elliott raises concerns about “Scientific Judgment and the Limits of […]

  4. […] 5, 2008 at 11:56 am · Filed under Biomedical Research Ethics As noted in our earlier discussion of street versus classroom RCR (responsible conduct of research) training, The Scientist has a refreshing piece by two […]

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