8 November 2017

What 'is' research integrity?

Date: 8 November 2017
Time: 12.30 - 14.00 hrs
Venue: Ravelijn, RA 1247
Speakers: Dr. Willem Halffman - Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen


Research integrity is the subject of growing concerns among science policy makers and research organisations. Attention ranges from relatively well-articulated and serious issues such as 'data fabrication' or plagiarism to far less univocal concerns over how to deal with data outliers, the post-hoc modification of research hypotheses, or even the treatment of junior researchers. These worries are expressed in a growing number of codes of conduct, integrity policies, training courses for young researchers, or research community initiatives such as Retraction Watch (the website that reports about retracted publications on a daily basis). 

While 'scientific fraud' was a key topic for Science and Technology Studies research in the past (e.g. Merton, Zuckerman, but also Guston), STS attention has faded and integrity has now been taken up by a veritable 'research integrity industry', largely unaware of STS perspectives. Nevertheless, from the perspective of STS, this attention raises interesting questions about the particular framing of such concerns as specifically issues of "integrity". In this discourse, concerns become defined in a particular understanding of what is breached or what can be done to "strengthen the integrity of science", often restricting issues to matters of methodology and individualised procedural responsibilities. However, while such a reflexive approach to "integrity" is warranted and interesting, it should not lead to ironic and relativist abandon: some of the issues are very serious and accusations of integrity breaches make strike close to home. (A paper by a prominent STS researcher was recently retracted after challenges to its data integrity - the first, as far as I am aware.) 

In this paper, I will present the results of two of our studies on large-scale breaches of research integrity/good practice, to argue that some of these issues warrant serious attention from STS. The first case concerns the degree of problematic text recycling in Dutch science: the republication of research without reference to original publications, largely to boost publication scores (to 'game' the evaluation system). The second involves wide-spread contamination of biomedical cell research with miss-labeled cell cultures. These studies raise questions about whether the current wave of attention for 'integrity' is articulated in the right terms, but also about the particular contributions STS could make to the current research integrity debate.