Research studies that are devoid and minimised of biases are accessible, robust and reproducible, and that reflect honesty, rigour and transparency are at the heart of research integrity, said the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Ntobeko Ntusi.
Professor Ntusi is the chair and head of the Department of Medicine at UCT and Groote Schuur Hospital. He delivered these comments during a plenary session at the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) in Cape Town on Tuesday, 31 May. The topic of his presentation was: “Fostering research integrity in clinical and biomedical research”.
“The gaps in research integrity are present at every stage of this continuum of biomedical research. When we think about research integrity we often think about individual researchers and forget that individual researchers occur within a large and complex research ecosystem,” Ntusi said. “I’d like to argue quite strongly that it is precisely the problem of science today that drives many of the challenges that we observe in our [quest] for research integrity.”
With a growing pool of researchers in South Africa and around the globe, access to funding remains one of the biggest limitations. Added to that, Ntusi said the poor quality of science research, which in many countries is driven by incentives, and the need to constantly push positive results are just some of the challenges that compromise research integrity.
In addition, despite being funded, many research studies are published behind paywalls – making them inaccessible to fellow scientists and the general public. Unfortunately, Ntusi said, science is also very poorly communicated to the public, and young academics experience high levels of stress, which seems to be getting worse with each new generation.
“I would argue that the competition between research groups is very unhealthy, not only for individuals, but for the entire research ecosystem.”
“There is huge pressure to publish [research]. I would argue that the competition between research groups is very unhealthy, not only for individuals, but for the entire research ecosystem,” he said.
Traditionally, research integrity has focused on the three cardinal sins of the research project, which include: fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. However, in recent years, Ntusi said attention has shifted to the “lesser breaches” of research integrity, or what scientists refer to as questionable research practices.
“[These] are much more prevalent and therefore collectively do much more harm to the validity and trust of research. Critically, research integrity is reliant not only on individuals, but also on institutional behaviours and practices,” he said.
In order to conduct responsible research, two elements are critical:
“Responsible conduct of research needs to incorporate these two concepts, which are two sides of the same coin, mutually interdependent and both enhance the quality of the work that we do,” Ntusi said.
Promoting research integrity
What are some of the important practices that promote research integrity at an individual and institutional level? Ntusi cited some of the Hong Kong Principles – a set of principles formulated and endorsed at the 6th annual WCRI in Hong Kong in 2019 – aimed at both researchers and research institutions.
“Many of you will be familiar with these principles. The Hong Kong Principles, in my view, are absolutely critical in ensuring that the quality and integrity of research is improved at both individual and institutional level,” he said.
At UCT, Ntusi said, academics teach research methodology, research ethics and research integrity at both undergraduate and postgraduate level and it sets a firm foundation for fostering research integrity in clinical and biomedical research. Similarly, in his own research group, staff members and students are required to undertake good clinical practice training. They are encouraged to participate in several webinars, some of which focus on research integrity, and are urged to choose research collaborators who share similar values.
“The integrity of knowledge that emerge from research is based on the individual and collective adherence to core values of objectivity, honesty, openness, fairness, accountability and stewardship.”
Further, he said, researchers are also supported by an efficient and involved research ethics committee, and are backed on departmental, faculty and university level by a number of systems and processes that promote research integrity and aims to prevent breaches within it.
“The integrity of knowledge that emerge from research is based on individual and collective adherence to core values of objectivity, honesty, openness, fairness, accountability and stewardship,” he said.
“That integrity in science means that institutions in which research is conducted encourage those involved to exemplify these values in every step of the research endeavour.”
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