Building a research ethics and integrity framework with and for researchers

Research ethics and integrity are now considered integral components of research excellence. Through its participation in the GRACE project, the Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU) has taken on the task of developing a comprehensive research ethics and integrity policy framework.

In Slovenia, there is currently no national framework for research integrity. Research in non-medical fields, where most of the 18 institutes of ZRC SAZU are active, often does not require an ethics committee clearance for national funding. However, in the face of increasing scrutiny, rising awareness and new regulations, ZRC SAZU has decided to implement guidance and support mechanisms to help researchers navigate ethics and integrity dilemmas. Since ethics review and integrity training can be perceived by researchers as empty box-ticking exercises that additionally burden their heavy workload, we began developing the policy by involving researchers in the process.

Developing the policy in a participatory way

We proceeded in two complementary ways. First, a study on good practices was conducted to learn more about institutional ethics and integrity policy models that may be applicable to ZRC SAZU. Second, an internal discussion was organised among ZRC SAZU researchers with the aim of developing the policy in a participatory manner. Bottom-up policy development is of utmost importance to ensure that the policy grows out of researchers’ needs and is designed to address the dilemmas they face in their daily research practice.

The study on good practices showed that organisations conducting research in non-medical fields often set up ethics committees on their own initiative (rather than as a result of national regulations, as is common in the biomedical field) to ensure that their research is ethical and that the requirements of research funders and publishers are met. Such panels often have an advisory role, providing support and guidance, but also reviewing projects or allegations of misconduct. Internal discussion confirmed that this is an appropriate model for ZRC SAZU.

Two events were held where ZRC SAZU researchers discussed ethics and integrity dilemmas that they regularly encounter and would welcome guidance on. They also discussed the ethics review procedures they face and the kind of institutional support that would best help them meet ethical requirements. Additionally, a questionnaire was sent out to all ZRC SAZU researchers in order to learn more about their needs and expectations regarding the ethics and integrity policy to be put in place. We learned that while 74% of researchers regularly undertake projects that raise ethical issues, only 39% have gone through an ethics review procedure. Those whose research requires ethics approval outsource reviews to committees at other institutions. The results showed that most researchers would welcome institutional ethics and integrity support and the option to have their work reviewed by an in-house ethics committee.

Looking towards implementation

Based on the findings of this process, the policy document was drafted in consultation with ZRC SAZU management, the legal department, the ZRC SAZU publishing house and the researchers who participated in the discussion process. Through this policy, ZRC SAZU commits to establishing an advisory committee that will oversee ethics review, develop ethics and integrity guidelines and misconduct protocols in collaboration with researchers, and organise awareness events and trainings. The document lays out a timeline for implementing the policy and the distribution of responsibilities. The committee will also include a gender equality working group to achieve a more integrated RRI approach. Assuring early buy-in from researchers and management commitment, we are looking forward to a successful implementation of the policy.

 

Rok Benčin

Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU)

 

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