Scholarly Integrity and its Role in Graduate Education

Scholarly integrity and ethics are of the utmost importance to many areas that constitute our role as members of our university. Anything from interacting with students to global travel for faculty is covered by some sort of policy that helps to ensure a certain set of university standards are upheld. More specifically, being a scientist who uses animals for research puts even more weight on scholarly integrity and ethics. Taking into consideration the use of a living thing that feels pain and discomfort makes a lot of research a difficult task, but utilizing animals in an ethical manner while simultaneously performing reliable, sound research is a major part of our job that is expected of us by our community and those outside of our discipline.

Here at Virginia Tech there are many different policies that cover a wide range of expectations for members of the university, but one relevant to myself is the Virginia Tech Animal Research Policy. The document states “It is the intent of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to encourage, safeguard, and ensure the humane treatment of all animals (any nonhuman vertebrate animal) used in research, instruction, and testing and to comply with all applicable governmental laws, principles, and standards governing such uses.”

I can say from firsthand experience that this is always on our mind when trying to conduct animal research trials and while these ideas may sound obvious they most definitely haven’t always been this way. It wasn’t until 1966 when Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, which put regulations on the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and dealers. The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) is the panel that oversees animal welfare in these settings, and it is the specific Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) that is responsible for reviewing the handling of animals at specific institutions. As an outsider it may seem daunting that there is this much oversight on scientists who use animals for research, but as we have learned more about animals we recognize that it is our responsibility to treat them humanely and to take as much precaution as needed to prevent any pain or suffering from occurring on our behalf.

As for the other side of our occupation as graduate students, which includes the laboratory work, interpretation of results, writing summaries, and submitting journals for publication there is just as much ethical integrity that needs to be upheld. Here at Virginia Tech there is a Graduate Honor System that has a constitution with specified beliefs and codes we are to uphold as graduate students (that is surely relevant with whatever we pursue post-graduate school). In this Honor Code it is stated “The fundamental beliefs underlying and reflected in the Graduate Honor Code are that 1) to trust in a person is a positive force making a person worthy of trust, 2) to study, perform research, and teach in an environment that is free from the inconveniences and injustices caused by any form of intellectual dishonesty is a right of every graduate student, and 3) to live by an Honor System, which places positive emphasis on honesty as a means of protecting this right, is consistent with, and a contribution to, the University’s quest for truth.”

It is clearly stated in this honor code that intellectual dishonesty is something we should strive to dissociate with as graduate students (and possible future academicians, such as myself), but what were to happen if we did not distance ourselves from performing dishonest, counterfeit research? The US Department of Health & Human Services has case summaries of such instances of people performing scholarly misconduct and their subsequent punishments. One such instance involved a man named Jon Sudbo of the Norwegian Radium Hospital. It was discovered that scientific misconduct had occurred while submitting his grant application to the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, and the grant’s first-year progress report. Specifically, he fabricated results that were presented in the grant application, lied about the number of patients screened for admission to the study, and he falsified his experience in the research field. This lead to three publications being retracted due to fabricated data as well as twelve more of his publications being retracted due to the similar nature of the research and the inability to consider their results valid. As for further punishments, in summary, he can no longer be contracted or subcontracted for work by any agency of the US government, he is no longer eligible to be involved in nonprocurement programs of the US government, and he is permanently banned from serving in any capacity to the US Public Health Service (PHS) or any contracted or subcontracted work. On top of this I am certain that this man, along with anyone else who has committed scholarly misconduct also will have a hard time securing a job in the future with their potential employers knowing their history.

Seeing a case of someone who committed academic dishonesty and hearing about their punishment is strangely satisfying. While it isn’t something I wish anyone to do or anybody who gave them funding/help/support to have to go through, it is relieving to know that these matters are taken seriously and dealt with in a serious matter. When there are other researchers out there who take painstaking measures to ensure their research is done correctly and that their results are true, it is beyond upsetting to know other people would like to cheat their way through the same process and get away with it. Whether it comes to the research portion of our work or the animal handling side, it is up to us to treat each situation with respect and to make sure we are doing our best to complete honest work.