Penn State moves forward as leader in ethics education

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It's often said that a house is only as strong as its foundation. Penn State's research "house" is supported by a solid legacy of ethical integrity and leadership, according to Candice Yekel, assistant vice president for research and director of the Office for Research Protections. Yekel is part of an interdisciplinary team of administrators and faculty who guide the University in strengthening its already robust programs and policies related to ethics education, literacy and compliance.

Yekel pointed to the appointment of Regis W. Becker as the first director of University ethics and compliance as one clear indication of this enhanced commitment. Becker's plans include the development of Penn State's first comprehensive program of institutional ethics. The announcement of plans to make 12 tenure-track appointments across an array of academic disciplines also speaks to the seriousness of this goal, she noted.

"Penn State has been a leader in Responsible Conduct of Research, or RCR, since 2009... We offer Penn State researchers and scholars comprehensive, multilevel training in RCR, in a way that is tailored to address the issues typically faced by individual disciplines."

--Sharon Shriver, assistant director of Educational Programs in the Office for Research Protections

A commitment to a strong program of ethics education, literacy and compliance is not new to Penn State. Explains Michael Verderame, professor of medicine and associate dean for graduate studies at Penn State's College of Medicine, "The College of Medicine has required education in Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) for all its doctoral students since about 1999, in a course originally established by Professor Gaylen Bradley; our requirement for all students to participate in RCR education has long exceeded the standard established by the National Institutes of Health." What's more, notes Verderame, "In 2010, the Graduate Student Association at the College of Medicine developed a Graduate Student Oath reflecting their commitment to the highest standards of scholarship and integrity. This oath, which was featured in the monthly newsletter of the Association of American Medical Colleges is recited by every incoming graduate student at the CoM during orientation, and again recited by the graduate students at commencement. We are one of only a very few colleges nationally to have such an oath."

"Penn State has been a leader in Responsible Conduct of Research, or RCR, since 2009," said Sharon Shriver, assistant director of Educational Programs in the Office for Research Protections. In that year, in response to heightened concerns within all of higher education about academic research misconduct, Penn State was among seven universities awarded funds by the United States Office of Research Integrity to develop models for integrating research and scholarly integrity into the graduate school experience. The Project for Scholarly Integrity, created by the Council of Graduate Schools, aimed to better inform students, researchers and faculty about the ethical responsibilities and complexities of research in the 21st century.

The Scholarship and Research Integrity program (SARI@PSU) emerged from the 2009 initiative. "All graduate students at Penn State who matriculated in fall of 2009 or later are required to complete the SARI@PSU requirements prior to graduation," Shriver noted. "We offer Penn State researchers and scholars comprehensive, multilevel training in RCR, in a way that is tailored to address the issues typically faced by individual disciplines."

SARI@PSU programs address topics such as publication practices and responsible authorship, conflicts of interest, research misconduct, peer review, mentoring, data management, collaborative research, human subjects protections and animal welfare. Since September 2011 the program also has required participation by new full-time faculty, postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate researchers, although participation requirements are less stringent for those groups. SARI@PSU courses, workshops and seminars are available online to all Penn State personnel.

"I'm frequently contacted by other educational institutions to provide information, consultation and resources as they explore setting up similar programs," Shriver said. "Often they understand the need for broad research ethics education, but are stumped about how to implement such a program. It's rewarding to see that SARI@PSU is viewed as an innovative model."

Yekel and Shriver noted that many offices and programs at Penn State share the complex task of ethics education, including the Rock Ethics Institute. Established in 2001 through a $5 million initial gift from Doug and Julie Rock to the Department of Philosophy and the College of the Liberal Arts, the Rock Ethics Institute has a mission to increase "ethical literacy" in the campus community, identify "ethical challenges, weigh options, consider other viewpoints, and take a stand for their beliefs and the interests of others."

"We're looking specifically at enhancing ethics literacy in research projects in the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences, as well as to advance the integration of ethics into the curriculum at all levels, including graduate and postdoctoral mentoring in research ethics."

-- Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts

The 12 new faculty to be appointed will have teaching and research interests in ethics as it applies to their home discipline. All appointees will work primarily in their home departments but have partial appointments in the Rock Ethics Institute, according to Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, the home of the institute, which is directed by Nancy Tuana.

"We're looking specifically at enhancing ethics literacy in research projects in the sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences," said Welch, "as well as to advance the integration of ethics into the curriculum at all levels, including graduate and postdoctoral mentoring in research ethics."

For example, a faculty member in a health field might develop a couple of courses integrating ethics as a major component of the material they teach, Welch explained. They might also help train others in their unit and work with colleagues on campus-wide initiatives. "Each faculty member's specific work will differ depending on their field and the specific needs of their department and college," she said.

Shriver noted that at Penn State, all disciplines are included in research ethics.

"That's one of the features that makes our approach unique, effective and relevant," she said. "Traditionally, research ethics has been the domain of the sciences, particularly medicine and engineering. But ours is not a one-size-fits-all program. Each graduate student and faculty member at Penn State explores ethical issues relevant to their discipline, whether they're in engineering, English or music theory."

Debra Thurley, associate director of the Office for Research Protections, said that when it comes to the University's code of research ethics and its compliance and enforcement procedures, the approach is decidedly not tailor-made.

"In the event of alleged non-compliance or research misconduct, there are specific policies and procedures to be followed," she said. "Once a concern is reported, we first have to evaluate the issue to ensure it is a valid claim and that there is enough information provided to review. If yes, we move to an inquiry stage and determine if the information gathered warrants an investigation. In all cases, there are specific procedures to follow, and committees that stand ready to become involved, as needed, such as the Institutional Review Board, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and the Conflict of Interest Committee. Each of these committees have developed standard operating procedures on how to review and process allegations of non-compliance or misconduct, or both."

Thurley's duties include managing the day-to-day operations of the Conflict of Interest Program, or COI.

"The University takes conflicts of interest and the potential for (or perceptions that) outside financial interests to affect our research and other decision-making very seriously," she said. "Thus, Penn State applies its conflict of interest policies University-wide and to all research, whether sponsored or unsponsored. The goal to ensure the public that our research and decision-making is not biased by outside financial interests is just as important when the research is funded by the NIH as when it is funded by the investigator's department or by industry."

One broad misunderstanding about COI, Thurley added, is that when most people -- members of the general public and the research community -- hear "there is a conflict of interest," they assume there has been wrongdoing or someone's integrity or ethics is being challenged.

"We have been trying very hard for several years to re-educate and explain that when we are looking at outside financial interests and their relationships to University research or business, we are usually looking at the potential for a conflict of interest or the perception that the researcher or the University could be conflicted in its decision making," Thurley said. "It is not a determination of wrongdoing or something that researchers or the University should feel they need to hide."

The goal, she emphasized, is to disclose, address and manage -- or in complex cases, eliminate -- the potential or perceived conflict before there are any issues.

Yekel said the size of the University presents challenges for monitoring for research compliance.

"So, we take a pro-active approach to develop a culture of concern by meeting with faculty, staff and students regularly and being readily available to answer questions," she explained. "The University has implemented an ethics hotline that is available to not only the University community but also the public. However, I am a strong believer that the best compliance is achieved with education and developing partnerships with our researchers."

Yekel reflected on her own experience as an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn State.

"Back then, most -- if not all -- of my education and training on how to conduct research ethically and in compliance was provided by my advisor," she said. "Since that time, areas like research compliance and research ethics have become even more complex and require a more institution-wide approach."

Because of some high-profile cases involving violations in the conduct of research, there has been an increase in federal policies and expectations, Yekel said. Universities have by necessity become more pro-active in providing many educational opportunities about ethics for students and faculty alike.

"Our goal is to keep growing in the ways we strengthen our own approaches to research ethics issues," Yekel said. "These efforts are not intended to replace the mentoring provided by faculty advisors; rather they are expected to enhance and encourage dialogue about difficult and challenging dilemmas."

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Last Updated August 14, 2014