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Provost Kornbluth on Research Ethics

Look around at your dorm-mates, your classmates, and your teammates. More than half of them will participate in some form of research before their time at Duke comes to an end. With such a high percentage of Duke undergraduates engaging in research, it seems obvious that there should be some form of education about integrity and ethical research. On Monday night, Provost Kornbluth joined Duke Student Government and Honor Council to discuss some of the most prevalent issues surrounding integrity and research at Duke.

Most people don’t have a problem with the concept of an honor code. Most believe themselves to be honorable people and don’t think twice about signing a pledge to refrain from cheating and plagiarizing. However, what does cause a second look is arguably the most important part of the honor code: the promise to act if we see the code being compromised.

Provost Kornbluth understands the concern students have with “telling on” their peers, but the issue of accountability and responsibility for others in the community is much more significant when the research you are conducting has the potential to influence other labs who might try to reproduce the results, and more importantly, for real-world applications such as patient care.

With the onslaught of technological innovations that allow for research to be conducted at an unprecedented rate as well as for information to be spread almost instantly, the discourse concerning medical ethics has increased over the years. Sites like RetractionWatch ensure that transgressions are publicized and researchers are held accountable for their conclusions. However, from time to time, something still slips by. This is why the willingness to report is integral to keeping the system honest. Nothing institutionalized, whether it be integrity training or anti-plagiarism programs, can stop one rogue individual who sets out with the intent of flouting the system.

In addition to a culture of reporting what looks suspicious and always checking results more than once, Provost Kornbluth is a strong believer in lab mentors leading and teaching by example. In many cases, misconduct occurs simply because a student is unaware that what they are doing is changing the results in a drastic manner. What is important is the continual education of young researchers while they are in the process of researching.

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