India now ranks third globally in both the number of scientific publications as well as the PhDs produced annually. Yet, academic integrity is a growing concern in India where It is customary for academics to present papers at conferences and publish them in journals, with Scopus being the recommended citation database due to its size and scope.
A recent investigative news article (24 April 2023) in The Print points out major lapses of academic integrity in higher-ed that continue to be observed today, even 6 years after the Gazette of India published major regulations on the promotion of academic integrity and prevention of plagiarism (July 2018). According to that report, editors from lesser-known Scopus-indexed journals are offering to publish academic papers for a mere Rs 5,000. Furthermore, for an additional fee, ghostwriters are available to compose entire research papers on behalf of clients. The pressure to publish (publish-or-perish) has created an illicit industry of agents and touts who collaborate with compromised peer-review boards to publish substandard or even entirely fabricated research papers. These so-called “fixers” are targeting academics and scientists who feel stuck in the endless cycle of publishing in the pursuit of promotions or professional status, as well as Ph.D. students who are desperate to graduate.
If left unchecked, such practice will have long-term harmful consequences, including increased uncertainty and a decline in public trust in science and scientists’ ability to uphold the truth. Moreover, this trend could significantly harm the credibility of Indian researchers in the international academic community. Let’s look at some of the dimensions of the problem at hand.
Academic integrity and research ethics are two interconnected concepts that are foundational to the success and credibility of academic learning and trustworthy research. Academic integrity refers to the values, principles, and practices that uphold honesty, transparency, and accountability in the academic community. Research ethics, on the other hand, involves ethical considerations that guide the design, conduct, and dissemination of research. In this article, we will explore the importance and concerns of academic integrity and research ethics, the key principles that underpin them, the potential consequences of failing to uphold them, and how to safeguard against such failures.
Research ethics refers to a set of guidelines and principles that govern the conduct of research involving human subjects or animals — sentient beings. These guidelines help ensure that research is conducted ethically and responsibly to protect the rights, safety, and well-being of participants and the integrity of the research process.
Here, we draw attention to the different characteristics and complexities of research ethics by citing a few case studies from history. The importance of informed consent is illustrated in cases 1 & b.
a. Milgram’s obedience experiments, in which participants were asked to administer electric shocks to a “learner” in another room. Although participants were told that the shocks were real, they were fake, and the “learner” was a confederate of the experimenter. Many participants experienced high levels of stress and anxiety during the study, leading to concerns about the ethics of the study and the adequacy of the informed consent process (Milgram, 1963).
b. The Tuskegee syphilis study, in which researchers studied the natural progression of syphilis in African American men without informing them of their diagnosis or providing them with treatment, even after penicillin became available as a cure. The study continued for 40 years, leading to the death of many participants and widespread outrage about the unethical treatment of vulnerable populations (Jones et al., 1993).
Confidentiality and privacy are important components of research ethics, as they protect the personal information of research participants and ensure that it is not disclosed without their consent as exemplified in cases c & d.
c. The Stanford prison experiment, in which participants were randomly assigned to be “guards” or “prisoners” in a simulated prison environment. The experiment was intended to study the dynamics of power and authority, but it quickly devolved into a situation in which the guards became abusive and violent toward the prisoners. The study was criticized for its lack of safeguards to protect the privacy and confidentiality of participants, as well as for the potential harm it caused to participants (Zimbardo, 1973).
d. The Facebook emotional contagion study, in which researchers manipulated the content of users’ newsfeeds to see if it affected their emotional states. The study was criticized for its lack of transparency about the research methods, as well as for its potential impact on users’ privacy and well-being (Kramer et al., 2014).
Globally, there have been several high-profile legal cases related to research ethics, e.g.:
- Nuremberg Trials (Germany): The Nuremberg Trials were a series of military tribunals held after World War II to prosecute Nazi war criminals. The trials established the principle of informed consent in research and led to the development of the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines for human experimentation that has had a lasting impact on research ethics around the world.
- Henrietta Lacks case: Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose cancer cells were used without her consent to develop a cell line that has been used extensively in research. The case raised important ethical questions about informed consent and the use of human tissues in research and has had implications for research ethics around the world.
- Woo-suk case (South Korea): Hwang Woo-suk, a researcher, claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells, but was later found to have fabricated his results. The case raised concerns about scientific misconduct and the need for greater oversight and transparency in research.
- Gene-editing controversy (China): In 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed to have used gene- editing technology to create the world’s first genetically modified babies. The case raised concerns about the ethics of human gene editing and the need for greater oversight and regulation of research involving human subjects.
- The AIIMS kidney transplant scandal: In 2016, doctors at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi were accused of facilitating an illegal kidney transplant racket, in which wealthy individuals paid to receive kidneys from poor donors. The case raised important ethical questions about organ donation and transplantation and highlighted the need for greater regulation and oversight of these procedures.
- The Unethical Drug Trials case: In 2012, a parliamentary panel in India found that several multinational drug companies had conducted clinical trials on Indian patients without their knowledge or consent and that these trials had resulted in serious adverse effects and deaths. The case raised concerns about the exploitation of vulnerable populations in medical research and led to calls for greater transparency and accountability in clinical trials in India.
There are several philosophical views on academic integrity: Kantian ethics emphasizes the importance of respecting the dignity of all persons in pursuit of knowledge and views academic dishonesty as a violation of the duty to respect the autonomy and rationality of others. Virtue ethics emphasizes the cultivation of moral character and holds that academic integrity is a matter of developing the virtues of honesty, fairness, and respect for others. Consequentialist ethics evaluates actions based on their outcomes and holds academic integrity as important because it promotes the reliability and credibility of research and scholarship. Professional ethics emphasizes the importance of ethical behavior within specific professions or disciplines and views academic integrity as a matter of upholding the ethical standards of one’s profession or discipline. The key principles or notions of research ethics may be summarised as
- Truthfulness: Falsification of data or any use of fake or counterfeit products or applications must be diligently avoided.
- Informed Consent: This requires that participants are fully informed about the nature of the research, including any potential risks and benefits, and give their voluntary and informed consent to participate.
- Confidentiality and Privacy: Researchers must take steps to protect the privacy and confidentiality of research participants by ensuring that personal information is not disclosed without the participants’ consent.
- Data management in research refers to the organization, storage, preservation, and sharing of data that are collected and used in a research project. Researchers must take steps to ensure that research data is collected, stored, and analyzed responsibly and ethically and that any data sharing or its reuse is done following appropriate guidelines.It involves the activities and decisions that researchers do during and after the research process, such as using consistent conventions, documenting data, depositing data in a repository, and making data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. Data management is important for the quality, integrity, and impact of research, as well as for meeting the requirements of funders and publishers.
- Participant Dignity: Researchers must treat participants with respect and dignity, and ensure that their participation in research is voluntary and free from coercion or undue influence.
- Animal Welfare: Researchers who use animals in their studies must ensure that they are treated humanely and that their use is justified by the potential benefits of the research.
- Conflict of Interest: Researchers must disclose any potential conflicts of interest that mayimpact the integrity of their research or the welfare of participants.
- Reproducibility and Transparency: Researchers must ensure that their research is conductedin a transparent and replicable manner and that the findings are reported accurately and honestly.
India is a diverse and multifaceted country, and many ethical dilemmas arise in the context of research involving human subjects or animals. Some of the key research ethics dilemmas in the Indian context include:
- Obtaining informed consent can be a challenge in India due to factors such as low levels of education, language barriers, and cultural differences. In some cases, participants may not fully understand the nature of the research or the risks and benefits involved and may feel pressured to participate due to social or economic factors.
- India is home to several vulnerable populations, including children, women, and people living in poverty. Researchers must take special care to ensure that these populations are not exploited or harmed in the course of research and that their rights and dignity are respected.
- With the recent, but late, adoption of the Personal Data Protection Bill, India’s researchers must ensure that they are collecting and storing data under appropriate guidelines and taking steps to protect the privacy and confidentiality of research participants.
- India has a deep-rooted tradition of animal reverence & welfare, and there are many laws and regulations in place to protect animals from harm. Researchers who use animals in their studies must ensure that they are treating them humanely and that their use is justified by the potential benefits of the research.
Some view “environmental sensitivity or responsibility” as a key ingredient of academic work as well, although we won’t dwell much on it here. But, ethnographic and Biomedical studies among indigenous people are common practices in health and geographical research. Preceding cases illustrate the complex and evolving nature of research ethics around the world and the importance ofcareful consideration and oversight to ensure that the research conducted is transparent, fair, and respectful of the rights and dignity of all participants. In essence, research ethics are essential to ensure that the research is conducted in a manner that protects the welfare and safety of participants, and promotes the advancement of knowledge in a responsible and ethical manner.
Academic integrity involves a commitment to honesty and ethical behavior in all aspects of academic work, including experimentation, research, writing, teaching, and learning. By upholding these standards, students, researchers/scholars can contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and maintain the integrity of academic institutions and the wider academic community, and the dignity of all participants.
Major facets of academic integrity include:
1) Giving credit to the original sources of information and ideas by properly citing and referencing them in one’s work is a fundamental aspect of academic integrity. This includes citing sources for direct quotes, paraphrased text, and even ideas or arguments that are not one’s own.
2) Producing original work that is not based on others’ ideas, work, or research is also a key component of academic integrity. This means that students should not submit papers that they have not written themselves, and researchers should not present data or results that they have not collected or analysed themselves.
3) Honesty in reporting research results is essential to academic integrity; researchers should report all results, whether positive or negative, and avoid selectively reporting only the results that support their hypotheses.
4) Adhering to ethical standards, which include obtaining informed consent from study participants, maintaining confidentiality, and avoiding conflicts of interest, is also critical.
5) Avoiding plagiarism, or the use of someone else’s work or ideas without proper attribution, is another important aspect of academic integrity. This includes properly citing sources and avoiding the use of others’ work without permission.
It’s noteworthy that the recent rise of “large language model” AI such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard has given rise to a new dimension of complexity in ethical considerations and challenges to plagiarism detection. It poses complexity because modern tools are often utilized in writing but the greyline is to what extent one’s undeclared dependence is acceptable. Compare this to when electronic calculators were introduced and their use, even today, is restricted based on the objectives of the student assessment involved. E.g., the use of Grammarly on the submitted text and some limited paraphrasing help may be considered okay.
On the other hand, AI-generated text makes plagiarism harder to detect. Many universities today ban the use of ChatGPT-like tools by students. While an assistive and generative AI tool can productively help one out of “writer’s block” and provide a “springboard” for ideas, or even help in language translation, its use must be done critically, transparently, and thoughtfully.
It may also be noted that research ethics and publication ethics are closely related and complementary. Informed consent is a key component of research ethics, and researchers must ensure that participants have a clear understanding of the research project and their rights as participants. Publication ethics require that authors obtain permission from participants to use their data or personal information in published works and protect their anonymity and confidentiality. Research ethics require that researchers protect the privacy and confidentiality of research participants, while publication ethics require that authors share data and research materials to the extent possible, to facilitate the replication and validation of research findings. Balancing these requirements requires careful consideration and planning. Publication ethics require that authors be credited for their research contributions, while research ethics require that authors acknowledge the contributions of others to the research project. This requires clear communication and collaboration among researchers to ensure that authorship is attributed fairly and accurately. Publication ethics require that authors cite their sources appropriately and avoid plagiarism, while research ethics require that researchers give credit to the work of others in their field.
Both research and publication ethics require that authors respect the intellectual property rights of others and avoid misconduct such as plagiarism and fabrication of results. There are potential consequences for not upholding academic integrity or research ethics. Journals and publishers may reject submissions or retract published work if they discover academic misconduct. Violations of academic integrity and research ethics can lead to disciplinary action, such as revocation of degrees, expulsion from academic programs, or loss of academic privileges, such as teaching or research positions. Plagiarism or fabrication of data can severely damage an individual’s reputation and that of their institution and can erode trust and credibility in the research community, undermining the value and impact of academic research. Academic misconduct can result in legal and financial repercussions, such as lawsuits or loss of funding, which can have serious consequences for individuals and institutions.
Academic Integrity may also be broadened to include (mis)conduct in “management of science” which involves integrity in administering research awards, project grants, etc. but this article won’t delve into it. The root causes of such lapses may be categorized as follows:
- Inadequate learning environment or academic preparation: Plagiarism has been a significant problem but has sharply accentuated as online teaching and assessment have become commonplace since the outbreak of Covid19 . There have been numerous cases of scholars and students being caught submitting plagiarized work, including research papers and theses. Despite the availability of plagiarism detection software, some individuals continue to engage in plagiarism, often due to a lack of understanding or awareness of academic integrity.Cheating on exams and assessments is also a widespread problem in Indian universities and schools. Students have been caught using electronic devices, sharing answers, and engaging in other forms of academic misconduct during exams.
- Lack of awareness and education: A lack of awareness and education about academic integrity is also a problem in India. Many students and researchers are not familiar with proper citation practices, academic writing conventions, and ethical research practices. This lack of awareness and education can lead to unintentional violations of academic integrity.
- Pressure to publish: The pressure to publish for advancing one’s academic career is another issue that can contribute to academic integrity problems in India. Some researchers may betempted to engage in misconduct, such as data fabrication or selective reporting of results inorder to publish more frequently or to publish in high-impact journals.
- Lax enforcement: Despite the existence of codes of conduct and policies on academicintegrity, there are often no consequences for individuals who engage in academic misconduct. This lack of enforcement can perpetuate a culture of dishonesty and undermine the credibility of Indian academic institutions.
How does one safeguard Academic Integrity?
Addressing these issues will require a concerted effort by universities, research institutions, and the Indian government to promote a culture of academic integrity, improve the learning environments, provide education and training on academic integrity, and enforce policies and procedures related to academic misconduct.
A simple anti-plagiarism strategy grounded on a “similarity-based index” (as in the UGC guidelines) does not work well in the modern world. Ensuring academic integrity requires a multifaceted approach that involves a combination of policy definition, training, prevention, detection, and enforcement strategies that may include modern tools.
Effective promotion and maintenance of academic integrity require collaboration and partnership across different stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Institutions should develop clear and comprehensive policies and procedures for addressing academic misconduct, including plagiarism, fabrication, and cheating. These policies should be widely disseminated and enforced consistently to ensure that all members of the academic community understand the consequences and the import. Effective and reinforcing training programs can help students, faculty, and staff understand what academic integrity means, its importance, and what constitutes academic misconduct and guide how to avoid plagiarism, how to cite sources properly, and how to adhere to ethical standards in research and scholarship. Institutions can promote a culture of academic integrity by celebrating and rewarding ethical behaviors, providing positive role models, and creating an environment where honesty and integrity are valued and encouraged.
Our academic fraternity – the faculty — may consider taking the following steps for their courses:
- Reinforce the purpose, value, and relevance of your course to the field of study and the professional world beyond academia. Illustrate how academic integrity matters both inside and outside of the profession, such as by explaining why integrity is crucial for engineering and how responsible behavior directly impacts people’s quality of life.
- Link academic dishonesty to real-life consequences, such as potentially catastrophic design flaws resulting from dishonest learning about basic engineering functions.
- Provide constructive feedback that focuses not only on grades but also on the courage to admit what you don’t know and the determination to learn. Encourage small-group discussions that allow for informal learning.
- Incorporate academic integrity into your content. For example, if you are discussing a case study on an online forum, ask students to consider the impact of fraudulent decisions on the company’s history, culture, and welfare.
- Include a question at the end of a quiz to encourage students to think about their learning progress: “List three concepts on which you performed well in this assessment and three concepts you will need to revisit for better learning. What will you do differently next time to prepare for this type of assessment?” This type of reflection encourages honesty and academic integrity.
- Encourage students to take the academic integrity pledge at the beginning of the semester or for every assignment. E.g., “I understand that academic integrity is expected of all University students at all times. My submission of this assessment for grading certifies that I have read and understood the ground rules. I pledge that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.”
- Utilize such software tools as “Hugging Face”, GLTR, and OpenAI’s “AI Text Classifier” to detect AI-generated long texts, while knowing that these tools have their limitations as well.
Here are some tips for designing a course with academic integrity in mind:
1) Start by clearly defining your course-level learning objectives and ensure that your assessments align with them. For instance, if the objective is for students to recommend a course of action using statistical calculations, design a project that requires them to demonstrate this skill in a relevant scenario.
2) Break down larger assessments into smaller, more frequent quizzes or exams. This provides students with opportunities for retrieval practice, knowledge organization, and retention, reducing the temptation for cheating. Consider incorporating low and high-stakes quizzes to enhance learning.
3) Offer students options to demonstrate their knowledge, allowing for individual choice and autonomy. When students feel motivated and engaged, they are less inclined to cheat. You can even involve students in the assessment design process by inviting them to contribute questions to the multiple- choice assessments.
4) Foster authentic learning by incorporating alternative assessments that require higher-order thinking skills, such as presentations, case study analyses, annotated problem sets, open-book problems, or a series of lower-stakes quizzes. Explore various alternative assessment approaches to promote meaningful learning experiences.
5) Offer case studies that illustrate situational dilemmas for a student and the expected responses to maintain integrity. A nice set of scenarios is available at the Queens University site www.queensu.ca/academicintegrity/case-studies.
While many reasons underly academic dishonesty today, lack of proper and nuanced understanding of it and lack of early and continual reinforcing education about it among students and scholars are at the root of both motivated dishonesty as well as unintentional plagiarism. Ultimately, ensuring academic integrity requires ongoing commitment, vigilance, and action on the part of all members of the academic community. By working together and taking proactive steps to promote and maintain academic integrity, we can help ensure the credibility, reliability, and trustworthiness of research and scholarship. On the other hand, failing to uphold academic integrity and research ethics has far- reaching consequences often affecting an individual’s career, the reputation of their institution, and the wider academic community or even the nation.
Dr. Priyadarsan Patra is Pro Vice Chancellor and Distinguished Professor, DIT University
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- What is Research Data Managemen thttps://datamanagement.hms.harvard.edu/about/what-research-data-management
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