Jan. 26: Susan Zimmerman on academic integrity

Posted on Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Susan Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research

By Alastair Hibberd, Teaching and Learning Services

Susan Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR), will be coming to McGill on January 26, to present the keynote address at McGill’s 7th Annual Academic Integrity Day. In anticipation of the event, the Reporter caught up with Ms. Zimmerman to ask some pressing questions with regard to her office and how it might influence the careers of graduate students and professors.

The SRCR works in partnership with the Panel on Research Ethics, the Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The SRCR is tasked with overseeing and advising with regards to the proper implementation of the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, 2nd edition (known as TCPS 2), and the Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research.

What is the mission of the Secretariat for Responsible Conduct of Research and why should it matter to professors and graduate students?

The mandate of the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research is to promote the ethical conduct of research involving humans and, more broadly, the responsible conduct of all research at institutions eligible for funding from the three federal research funding agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC). It does this by interpreting, revising and where necessary, enforcing two key documents: the Tri-Agency Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (known as the TCPS) and the Tri-Agency Framework: Responsible Conduct of Research.

The TCPS sets out the ethics principles and governance of research with human participants. The RCR Framework sets out the responsibilities and corresponding policies for researchers, institutions, and the Agencies, that together help support and promote a positive research environment – and the consequences of failing to comply with these standards throughout the life cycle of a research project.

The Secretariat provides advice on how to apply and interpret these documents. It also receives and reviews institutional reports when they concern Agency-funded research. Any faculty or student involved in research should be aware of these documents, which establish important norms of research ethics and responsible conduct of research. Ultimately, they need to be aware that failure to comply with these norms can result in loss of eligibility for Agency funding.

How does an intense academic culture with high productivity, responsibility and stress contribute to breaches of ethics and responsible conduct of research? What can institutions do to moderate these factors?

These are not simple questions. There is no doubt that we live in a world of high pressures and high expectations. Yet despite this reality, the percentage of breach that we see is small, and serious breaches – those that jeopardize the safety of the public or bring the conduct of research into disrepute – are very rare.

Our approach is to emphasize the promotion of a culture of responsible conduct of research, rather than having a punitive focus. So often, it is not only what is written in our documents, but what students learn from their teachers and supervisors, that influence what they consider to be acceptable or unacceptable research behaviour.

Nevertheless, we have to be aware of systemic pressures that may lead to perverse consequences. This is why all institutions and funding agencies must be aware of the requirements they impose, and consider whether those requirements may sometimes lead researchers to focus too much in some areas to the detriment of others. If reproducibility is an important marker, then we must value publications that seek to replicate, and not only those that present novel results. If publication is a marker for tenure or grant funding, then we should put the emphasis on the quality of one’s publications and not the quantity.

Given that graduate students and professors are at different stages in their career, do you think misconduct sanctions for graduate students should be similar to sanctions for professors?

The RCR Framework sets out a range of possible recourses for breach, from a letter of awareness all the way to a permanent declaration of ineligibility for funding. In determining what is the appropriate recourse for a given breach, the Secretariat and the independent Panel on Responsible Conduct of Research will consider the full context of the breach in determining what recourse to advise the Agency President to take. The level of experience of the researcher is certainly one factor to be considered. But the requirement to conduct one’s research responsibly is not phased in – it begins as soon as you undertake research.

How can professors best educate, and self-check, themselves about responsible conduct of research?

The principles underlying responsible conduct of research are fairly simple. It is the application of these principles in one’s day to day work that is the challenge. The ability to discuss issues openly, to address concerns in a project early on, to feel that one has a safe place to go to raise concerns about a colleague or a supervisor – these are the ways that a culture of RCR can be established, maintained and strengthened. The Secretariat is working with institutions to develop and share educational resources. While the Secretariat provides a number of educational resources such as a basic webinar and an interpretation service for the RCR Framework, we know that nothing replaces face to face, hands-on learning – working through case studies that are relevant to one’s field, so that the principles of RCR become matters of practice.

7th Annual Academic Integrity Day Friday, January 26, 8:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. Location: New Residence Hall.

The day is free and open to all members of the McGill community, and representatives from all disciplines are encouraged to attend. Get more information and register online.

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