Academic integrity should be taught at secondary school

Although students often copy, only rarely is this copying an act of conscious theft. According to Rita Santos, coordinator of a portal for victims of unethical behaviour in academia, some students lack awareness of what is out of bounds – as do their teachers. 

Read the story in Czech translation here.

A portal for victims of unethical behaviour in academia was launched in May this year. Whether it concerns plagiarism, falsification, stolen authorship or even poor treatment by a supervisor, anyone can report their suspicions through the portal. Anonymously, for free and from anywhere. The mentors of the portal, which is backed by ENAI, the European Network for Academic Integrity, will provide victims with advice on what to do in a difficult situation.  

Rita Santos is the senior researcher and project manager of ENAI, as well as being the coordinator of the portal. In the short time that the portal has been up and running, it has already received 5000 page views and several suggestions. "Science is mostly publicly funded, so whoever abuses science also abuses public money. People are starting to realise this and are more wary of such behaviour," says Portuguese scientist Santos.

Why did you decide to launch a portal for victims of unethical behaviour now?
The idea of starting this portal was born in the minds of our team back in 2020. We decided to launch it to offer more support to these victims. Another reason was that this portal is part of the Erasmus+ FAITH (Facing Academic Integrity Threats) project that got funding and we were able to launch it this year. After 2025, when the project finishes, the portal will continue under the banner of ENAI. We hope that through it we will also be able to increase the awareness of academics against unethical behaviour in academia and also help to establish a platform where anyone can report unethical behaviour and where everyone can get advice on how to fight back.

So it wasn't because there have been more cases of unethical behaviour in recent years?
The cases are increasing, that is true. But it's more because more attention is being paid to the issue, so researchers are more aware of practices that can undermine their work. And they're letting less of it go to waste. Of course, we don't know exactly how many academics encounter unethical behaviour, but according to a 2009 survey by Daniel Fanelli, for example, almost 2% of scientists admitted to having fabricated, falsified or altered data or results at least once, which is a serious form of misconduct. And nearly 34% of scientists admitted to other questionable research practices. That's a pretty high number. According to another survey from the Netherlands this February, as many as 18% of scientists have engaged in questionable practices. But this problem also affects students, among whom plagiarism is a major concern.

Why do you think more attention is now being paid to academic ethics?
Because any type of ethical transgression undermines confidence in scientific work and scientific knowledge. Yet science greatly influences the wisdom of the public as a whole. Moreover, the funding of science is mostly done through public sources, so those who abuse science also abuse public money. People are beginning to see this and are more wary of such behaviour. And scientists and all scientific personnel are already counting on a certain scientific integrity and beginning to act in ways that prevent such behaviour. 

The portal has been open since May. What kinds of unethical behaviour have you seen?
For example, we have received suggestions of suspected plagiarism, conflict in the publication process, and authorship disputes. These occur consistently and are common.

So would you say that these are the most common types of unethical behaviour?
In general, the most common types are plagiarism, falsification and fabrication.

Fabrication? How should this be understood?
You do research and you simply make up data for it. You don't survey the data, you don't collect the data, you just make up the numbers. Unfortunately, that happened during the COVID pandemic in a case where a scientist published a paper that had to be retracted from publication because the underlying data was just sucked out of his fingertips.

Is fabricating data common?
We don't see it that often because people don't usually report it. We also have very few research papers that focus on this kind of unethical behaviour. But we are trying to raise awareness about this phenomenon. Cases of data fabrication occur, especially in the medical sciences, where it is easy to create a new standard. For example, you develop a vaccine against COVID-19, you create a story behind it, you have patient numbers, you have vaccines, and you have data on the severity of the disease. You tweak the whole story a little bit and you publish it.

What's the difference between falsification and plagiarism?
Falsification is when you change part of your data. Plagiarism is simply copying and passing off the copied content as your own or as by someone other than the actual author. You can copy someone else's text or even someone else's idea.

Have certain stories of unethical behaviour come to you through the portal?
One story that is common, unfortunately, concerns plagiarism. A Ph.D. student conducted an experiment, got the results, and wrote an article about it. His advisor stole the paper from him, putting his name first in the authorship. Unfortunately, the rule in academia is publish or perish. Researchers simply have to publish a lot, and sometimes supervisors will base their work on their students' data. It's a way to increase the number of articles published per year, but the author is not the one who actually did the research and who gets the credit for the discovery.

Could you give another real-world example you've encountered on the portal?
People often report unethical work environments to us. Usually this includes authorship disputes, for example between researchers who are supposed to be listed first as the main author of a publication and those who are actually listed first, even though they contributed less to the work. And it also happens that a researcher is listed among the authors who has not contributed at all and is only there to boost his publication score. Or it is an academic who has a good reputation and the authors of the paper only list him or her to increase the credibility of the paper. Unfortunately, these cases are really common in academia.

And among students, what are the most common cases?
We are trying to draw attention to the topic of plagiarism among students. Because it is very common that students are accused of plagiarism, and it happens among students on B.Sc., M.Sc. and Ph.D. programmes. Plagiarism is certainly a serious problem, but what we are trying to point out is that there is a question of whether the student in question committed plagiarism because he or she wanted to behave that way, did not have enough integrity in him or herself, or simply was not sufficiently familiar with the rules of ethics. In fact, we find that many students do not have enough knowledge about academic integrity. How can we ask our students to act properly and not against the rules of ethics if we don't teach them anything about ethics? The two things – deliberate deception and misconduct due to lack of knowledge – should be sensitively distinguished. When plagiarism is reported, there should always be a fair and transparent investigation that reveals whether or not the student acted intentionally.

Can anyone report cases through your portal, or are there restrictions?
The portal is for everyone; it has no geographical, disciplinary or other restrictions. We are happy to help anyone, as cases of unethical behaviour occur everywhere. I would also like to point out that we aim to display the portal in multiple languages.  

Which country do most cases come from?
At the moment, we do not have a dominant country. We have users from Ireland, the United States, Canada, Brazil and many other countries. We launched the portal in May this year and it has already had over 5000 visitors from 59 countries.

And how many cases have been reported?
Of those that could be published anonymously, only one so far. Others are being dealt with privately. 

If I report suspected unethical behaviour through your portal, what happens next?
As soon as a complaint comes in, we get back to the author very quickly. His or her case is completely private: it will not be seen by anyone outside our organization. It will, however, be accessed by our team of mentors from the ENAI network and the Erasmus+ FAITH project and handled by the mentor who is best suited to it by their area of expertise or the nature of the case. The mentors will then agree on the most appropriate response and the best way forward. We also take into account whether the reported complaint is similar to any of the cases we have dealt with in the past. We will also ask if the author of the complaint agrees to have their case published on the portal in an anonymised version.

I understand that, but I was wondering how you from Portugal can deal with a case, for example, in which my supervisor stole my data, when you have never been to my university in Prague, you do not know anyone there and you have no leverage over my supervisor. 
We can help you with advice. In the example you gave, we would advise you to contact the journal in which your supervisor has published a paper with your data under his or her name and ask them to issue an expression of concern. This is an official procedure that can be requested. Furthermore, universities usually have what is called a scientific referee (orig. Scientific Officer, a manager in a scientific organisation experienced in scientific work, ed.), who is also a person you can contact about your problem. So it doesn't matter if we are in Portugal, Prague or anywhere else in the world, we are here to support whoever needs our help. We don't have legal jurisdiction – we are not a law firm – but we can guide you to the official places and advise you on how to proceed.

What needs to happen for unethical behaviour to be eradicated?
That's the big million-euro question, as I like to say. It requires a change of approach at many levels. It certainly requires the inclusion of more education and training on the subject of academic integrity and ethical practice, even at the early stages of education. Not only in universities: it should start in secondary schools. It is important to realise that by teaching students, teachers will also learn. Because even teachers are often not fully connected to academic integrity. The problem is also that many victims of unethical behaviour are afraid to report it. A scientist lacking protection from a parent organization may fear persecution from their supervisor or simply a loss of reputation, and so will not wish to be associated with such a sensitive case. Nor will they want to talk about it anywhere because it could affect their career and personal life. Academic integrity training is certainly important, but it also requires that the institutions themselves, i.e. scientific organisations and universities, take certain steps. It has to come from the bottom up. We need policies that emphasise the importance of academic integrity and that establish transparent processes for the subsequent investigation of these offences.