Taking Stock of Research Culture

Monday, August 20, 2018
cartoon of a scientist and flask

Conversations about good research culture lead many people to focus on research misconduct, i.e., fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research or reporting results with malintent. Alternatively, research culture may conjure thoughts of growing bacterial cultures in LB broth. Indeed, when considering research culture, we should think of it as something that is as pervasive as bacteria; research culture permeates all that we do at an academic medical center, and growing healthy laboratories, departments and institutes, requires the right ingredients.

The ethicists Drs. James DuBois and Alison Antes recently proposed five dimensions of research ethics to support a healthy research culture (Academic Medicine, Vol 93; No. 4. April 2018). These five dimensions, described below, allow a holistic look at research culture:

  1. Normative Ethics is used to describe what is considered right and wrong. For example, normative research ethics are used to define that fabrication of research data is wrong. We can also use normative ethics to consider when sloppy scientific practices (e.g., selective reporting) should be considered wrong.  
  2. Compliance includes adherence to federal, state and institutional laws, guidelines, and policies. Compliance can include not starting animal experiments until an IACUC protocol has been approved, completion of Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training, and adherence to Good Clinical Practices (GCP) standards when conducting human subjects research. Compliance requires researchers to work with stakeholders in a variety of compliance offices to ensure understanding and adherence to laws, guidelines and policies.
  3. Rigor and reproducibility refers to the designing, conducting, and analyzing of experiments in a way that produces unbiased and robust results. As defined by the NIH, rigor and reproducibility is inclusive of the research premise, the research design, consideration for biological variables (e.g., sex), and authentication of key biological reagents (e.g., using cell lines for curated sources). Considering these elements prior to doing work can strengthen research results and reduce waste in research.
  4. Social Value is doing work that benefits society. Here, scientists must be good stewards of funding to ensure it is used in an efficient way to maximize benefits for society. Scientists should also be good ambassadors to educate the community about the benefits of their work as laypeople may not always understand the intrinsic value in basic scientific research.
  5. Workplace relationships are inclusive of all the relationships that are key to conducting research—those within a lab, with collaborators, with trainees, with administrative support staff and with funders. Scientific endeavors are increasingly becoming highly collaborative, which means that healthy working relationships are key.

Research culture as considered through these five dimensions provides a framework for how all stakeholders (e.g., PIs, research and administrative staff, and students) at Duke can contribute to a strong research culture. Much like LB broth, if one ingredient is missing (or at the wrong concentration), the whole culture can be affected. Are there areas within these five dimensions where you could use further support? If so, we are here to ASIST (medschool.duke.edu/ASIST).