Becoming Good at Being Good

Thursday, November 8, 2018
By Chris Simon, PhD

Ask a seasoned researcher what it takes to be good at research apart from formal training, and he or she is likely to list such attributes as tenacity, innovative ideas, attention to detail, and writing skills. Yet it takes other important things as well, which are often not talked about in the same breath. Integrity. Responsibility. Consideration, respect, and fairness toward colleagues, trainees, and staff.  Without these attributes, a career in science is a house of cards waiting to collapse. For some, it has. Lack of integrity, responsibility, consideration, and respect underlie scientific misconduct and questionable research practices, and the harm they can do to research subjects, institutions, departments, disciplines, colleagues, and the integrity of the scientific enterprise as a whole. Talented, well-intentioned researchers can land in trouble through simple missteps such as failing to disclose conflicts of interest; sharing unprotected data files; forgetting to have consent documents signed, updated, and properly audited; or not reporting an adverse event. These seemingly innocuous oversights can have serious consequences (e.g., https://www.nature.com/news/misconduct-lessons-from-researcher-rehab-1.20029).

There are more subtle but equally important dimensions of research integrity, as well. Consider what it takes to be an outstanding mentor and role model in science. As most graduate students and trainees will confirm, it takes accessibility, empathy, communication skills, fairness, firmness, and respect. How do star mentors and role models rise to this level? For a few, it may come naturally. For others, it involves real work, ongoing self-reflection, and a willingness to improve. Consciously or unconsciously, many good mentors and scientists work at their character, their profession, and their multiple technical, professional, interpersonal, and moral duties in life. This is not an easy path; it requires humility and facing up to the fact that each of us is an imperfect pilgrim in a complex world, a moral work in progress. Following the rules, regulations, and conventions that govern science and research is necessary. Yet good mentors and role models know intuitively that compliance alone does not lead to integrity. One needs moral agency.

Moral agency is what makes us ethically effective in our day-to-day efforts. Just as it takes motivation and many years to become really good at interpreting assays, crafting an R01, or teaching and mentoring, becoming good at being good takes motivation and the better part of a career. There are aids to help with this journey. Good courses, workshops, and seminars on research integrity and the responsible conduct of research can provide frameworks, guidelines, and concepts needed to nurture and grow our ability to analyze and navigate ethical challenges in our daily work. There are also principles of integrity we can consult and work into our professional lives, provided by sources such as the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity, or the Global Research Council. Most importantly, we need to be prepared to learn from our mistakes and those of others. We need to make time to reflect on our progress. We need to chat with others also journeying towards a better self. In doing so, we center the journey we are on, and give it its due. These are some of the key elements of becoming good at being good at science and research.

Do you have questions about resources available on campus to help you become good at being good? We are here to ASIST.