For me, acting responsibly requires a conscious decision and commitment. It is not something that just happens, but is a choice that we make. Responsibility, on the other hand, is different. Anyone can be given, or take on responsibilities. For some, this can be fulfilling and a source of great pride, but for others the same responsibilities can feel burdensome and restrictive.
I remember very clearly the great excitement and pride that I felt when I started out on my own research career. I was going to do important work, answer outstanding questions and do it all to the very best of my abilities. I considered myself privileged to be in a position to do so, and life seemed very straightforward.
I would get up each morning and make my way to the lab where I would spend the day never too far from the watchful gaze of my PhD supervisor. Her habits became my habits. Almost by osmosis, I conducted myself, my experiments, my research, just as she conducted hers. I didn’t know what I didn’t know – and I was blissfully ignorant of this fact.
By the time I finished my PhD, the life of new research students was very different. It had become common practice for researchers to have at least two, if not three, students under their stewardship at any one time. Rather than enjoying the luxury of daily 1:1 time, students now had to compete with each other for their share of precious time with their supervisor.
Invariably, competition enables some individuals to shine; while, for others, it is a less positive and more frustrating experience. Herein lies a problem and a great missed opportunity. It was always subjective as to how much of research conduct would rub off, as if by magic, between supervisors and their students. Judging by the frequency of headlines declaring problems with the quality, reproducibility and reporting of some published data, it would seem to me that the time honoured magical process doesn’t seem to be fairing so well in this super-competitive modern era.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad and there are great supervisors around. Students and post-docs will still come across all manner of inspiring people that will influence them and their conduct throughout their research career. What I am saying is this….. it is no longer safe to assume that the current or indeed future generations of research scientists will simply acquire the ‘common sense’ knowledge and skills required to conduct their research responsibly.
Thankfully, it is relatively simple to ensure that individuals are aware of their responsibilities and accountable for their own actions within a legal framework. BUT it is quite another matter to support individuals to fulfil these expectations. It takes time and experience to develop confidence and competency in the multitude of skills required to think critically, act ethically and work openly in practice.
To me, the early years of any research career are critically important in determining what kind of researcher individuals will go on to become. I am not joking when I say that keeping up to date with the constantly evolving concept of best practice in all aspects of research conduct is a full time job on its own.
Yet for many researchers training provision in the practicalities of responsible conduct and research integrity can be quite sketchy, or too generic to be useful. Don’t get me wrong – researchers do not want or need to be told what to do. BUT discipline specific training – delivered by a passionate individual with research experience – can be invaluable. Especially if delivered as part of a skills development programme to support a good research culture and culture of care.
This blog has been written by Dr Nikki Osborne, founding Director of Responsible Research in Practice Ltd. It is a revised version of a blog that was first published on 15th February 2016.
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