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The pillars of research integrity

The pillars of research integrity

What is "research integrity"? Matt Hodgkinson, Head of Editorial Policy and Ethics at Hindawi, articulates four pillars — honesty, transparency, competence, and credit — that capture what research integrity means to him.

What is research integrity? This should be an easy question for me after the best part of two decades working in science publishing and the last half a decade dedicated to publication ethics. But as with another umbrella term, “open science”, the area of “research integrity” has many facets. As a panelist on Hindawi’s recent webinar organized with Research Square and the Copyright Clearance Center, this was the first question we faced and it gave me pause while I tried to sum up the essence.

The COPE/DOAJ/WAME/OASPA Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing are useful (which I would say, as a COPE council member) but they have a narrow focus on the specifics of ethically running journals rather than wider concepts, whereas “doing the right thing” (as popularized by Retraction Watch) is a simple rule of thumb but probably too broad. I tried to articulate some principles — four pillars, if you will — that together capture what research integrity means to me: honesty, transparency, competence, and credit.

  • Honesty: being true to yourself and your research, and not altering, distorting, or selecting results to satisfy any need outside the research process, and declaring and mitigating possible sources of bias;

  • Transparency: sharing as much as you are able about the research process, the results, and the underlying data, and explaining when and why there are limits;

  • Competence: having the right skills and knowledge to carry out the research and the judgment to know when you lack these and must collaborate with those who hold them (see the Dunning-Kruger effect);

  • Credit: fully acknowledging the contributions of others, be they those who deserve co-authorship, other colleagues, or scholars whose related work you must cite, discuss, and reconcile with your own.

In the spirit of the last principle, I must admit I am not the first to derive similar concepts: Universities UK’s Concordat to Support Research Integrity, revised in October 2019, lumps credit with honesty, replaces competence with rigor, and adds accountability and a duty of care and respect to research participants and society. The US National Academies’ Integrity in Research from 2002 discusses intellectual honesty, transparency, and accuracy, fairness, respect, and collegiality towards other researchers, and the protection and care of research subjects. However you slice them, used together these principles should keep researchers and those assessing their work on the straight and narrow.

Thank you to my fellow panelists, Mark Yorek, Chief Editor of our Journal of Diabetes Research, and Roma Konecky of Research Square, for a stimulating discussion.

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.