Stanford Dean of Research starts conversation about preserving research integrity

Stanford's Dean of Research encouraged faculty to model principles of research integrity, contribute to efforts to define best practices and reinforce awareness of the definition of research misconduct.

L.A. Cicero Ann Arvin portrait

Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research

Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research, told the Faculty Senate on Thursday that universities across the country face many challenges to preserving research integrity, ranging from the highly competitive environment for federal funding to the globalization of research.

Speaking at the second senate meeting of autumn quarter, Arvin said concerns about the integrity of academic research nationwide have been raised in recent years among funding agencies, the scientific community and the public.

She said a report in The Economist, "How Science Goes Wrong," came out just last week.

In the past, Arvin said, conflict of interest issues were a major topic of discussion.

"The topics that are appearing now are a little bit different and include the increase in the number of papers that have been retracted from research journals, reports of lack of reproducibility in research findings that have attracted a lot of attention, and more than a handful of high- profile cases of research misconduct," said Arvin, who also is a professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine.

She said Stanford could respond to the challenge of preserving research integrity by reinforcing awareness on campus of the definition of research misconduct.

According to the federal government, "research misconduct is the fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research or in reporting research results," a definition adopted by Stanford and other institutions.

"I am not sure that all of us are fully aware of the definition of research misconduct," she said.

Arvin said faculty members could help by "modeling" the conduct of responsible research, and by contributing to efforts to define "best practices."

"There's a lot of discussion about educating around practices of research integrity and what emerges from that data is that it's really the modeling of the principal investigator and the lead scholar in the group that seems to have the most impact," she said. "It's not how many online training modules you take."

Arvin said Stanford should think about the special circumstances of trainees who may not feel comfortable bringing their concerns forward.

"It's important that people know how to bring forward their concerns and to know that there is a prohibition against retaliation if they do," Arvin said.

"Our policy says that if anyone has a concern they should bring it to the dean of the school. I think it's easy to understand that maybe a second-year graduate student won't feel like knocking on the door of the dean. So it's important to try to understand how to make sure avenues are open to bring forward these issues."

Arvin emphasized that she was not just talking about research integrity in the context of scientific bench research.

"We are talking about the whole scholarly enterprise here, and the integrity of that body of work, whatever the discipline," she said.

In the discussion that followed Arvin's presentation, one professor said it was critically important to ensure that young people and trainees feel comfortable reporting misconduct.

Another professor said he had read papers on research misconduct to try to understand the extent of the problem, but didn't have confidence in their findings.

One professor encouraged faculty to develop more courses on the curriculum on research integrity for graduate students. Another professor said students worry that raising questions could affect their standing in the lab.

"We all need to discuss what we can do better," Arvin said. "Our office will do whatever is felt important to do. But in this instance it is a very diffuse responsibility. We all need to understand better how to deal with these issues. I'm ready to participate in whatever efforts people think will be valuable."

The full minutes of the Oct. 24 meeting will be available on the senate website next week. The minutes will include the question-and-answer session that followed Arvin's presentation.

The senate also approved the minutes of the Oct. 10 meeting, which are now available on the senate's website.

The next senate meeting will be held Nov. 7.