The integrity of the investigation is much more than bad behavior.

Stem cell research pipette.

Improvements in day-to-day research practices, such as examining experimental designs, increase the integrity of research.Credit: Westend61 / Getty

Start a conversation about the integrity of the research and many researchers will badume that you are talking about misconduct. Very often, they are wrong.

The misconduct of the investigation covers fraud, fabrication and plagiarism. It is essential to deal with such dishonesty thoroughly and fairly, but it is fixing a tear after the damage is done. The integrity of the investigation includes such investigations, but it is much more. It is about creating systems that improve the quality, relevance and reliability of all investigations.

The distinction is clear at the Sixth World Conference on Integrity of Research, which is being held this week in Hong Kong. Yes, there are sessions about bad behavior, but there are many more to improve science in general. The greatest impact on the integrity of research is achieved through sustained improvements in day-to-day research practices: better registration, research of experimental designs, techniques to reduce bias, rewards for rigorous work and incentives to share data , codes and protocols, rather than narrow efforts to find and punish some bad actors. (Both are important, of course, and sometimes the same policies can address both problems).

The combination of integrity and misconduct is problematic because it prevents researchers from talking about ways to improve their work. Experts in quality control or strict protocols sometimes avoid using words like "rigor" and "integrity" for fear of alienating colleagues by suggesting that their work lacks these qualities. It was recommended to a program established to encourage practices such as randomization and blinding in animal experiments to change its name from "research improvement project" to "research optimization project". This is ridiculous. No one should be arrogant enough to think that their research can not be improved.

Carrying out research with integrity, honesty and precision is something that every scientist should proudly aspire to. And the integrity of research is not a virtue that is present or absent: it is a capacity that can be improved. It requires ongoing training for both early career researchers and more senior faculty members, as well as the reworking of perverse incentives, and rewards researchers for important but unattractive contributions. Each conversation or integrity research course is an opportunity to grow. Expectations, skills and standards should be constantly updated, especially as new fields such as metaresearch reveal more about practices that strengthen science.

History confirms it. The idea of ​​informed consent is less than 100 years old. In Nature's research journals, the blinding and randomization controls are just over six. Expectations that the data and the code will open completely are becoming commonplace. These are examples of how to improve the integrity of the investigation. We must recognize them, and look for more.

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