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Relevance of Case-Based Studies in Workshops on RCR for Diverse Audiences: the importance of including both (Part II)

Both parts I and II of this blog were originally published
as a commentary in the Office of Research Integrity’s Newsletter (
Volume 22, Number 2, March 2014 and has been reproduced with permission for the
AMBI blog.

In Part I, published last month, I discussed my experience
organizing and developing a responsible conduct of research (RCR) workshop for
stem cell scientists that was held at the Till and McCulloch Meeting in October
2013 as part of Canada’s Stem Cell Network at In Part
2, I discuss the importance of developing RCR pedagogy that includes both
lecture and informational components, and provides ethical cases such that
students have a rich understanding of normative, policy, and practical aspects
to different RCR topics.

Case-based learning has a place in bioethics and moral
analysis. Past cases of scandals and tragedies in human research have
established ethical norms and practices and have spurred the creation of
international codes of conduct. Today, case-based ethics pedagogy is also the
foundation of most training programs in clinical ethics and clinical ethics
consultation. Cases are effective in RCR training because they engage
scientists in thinking about ethical situations that occur in the lab. These
are situations that they can relate to, and some may be more commonplace (e.g.,
the stress of results not working out, favoritism, or authorship disputes),
whereas others may be scenarios they heard about (e.g., a questionable
retraction or possible contamination of solutions). Most of the second-year AMC
course on scientific integrity is to analyze and discuss cases. Similarly, the
interactive video at the RCR workshop was successful in getting trainees to
think about the ethical situation encountered by the graduate student. Although
there is little data on whether case-based training actually results in better
ethical decision making, intuitively it seems a critical component if
scientists are to be ethically aware of their practice in relation to others.

Although cases are essential elements to training
practitioners, they have finite value if they are not integrated with
knowledge-based components. As a trained scientist, I can’t imagine being given
a case about ethical authorship practices without having some background on
what is ethical authorship and why it is important. For example, mentioning
that authorship is based on giving someone due credit and that scientists are
required to be honest and fair and to provide others with opportunities are
important aspects to convey.  Some
elements must be mentioned if the cases are to make sense. One is reporting
some interesting facts, such as a study showing that about 10 percent of
scientists said they have engaged in unethical authorship. Another is pointing
out that most science and medical journals have authorship policies and
explaining what those policies mean. Moreover, providing such information gives
scientists the tools they need to further look up policies and information if
they should ever encounter a similar case. A discussion about norms, practices,
and policies needs to be incorporated in some manner into RCR pedagogy directed
to scientists to provide a thorough picture.

Having a lecture followed by one or more cases is
certainly one way to teach individual RCR topics, and a way that worked in the
RCR workshop. But knowledge-based instruction can be incorporated in different
ways. In our second-year Discussions in
Scientific Integrity
course at AMC, we have students lead each class with a
synopsis of the topic, and we choose to fill in gaps as we deal with cases. How
you deliver information in RCR classes can take on many forms. It can be
through introductions of topics led by students, a lecture beginning each
class, or integration of information into the cases. Similarly, delivery of
cases can be done in different ways, including role playing, having class break
out into smaller groups to later convene and discuss findings, or using an
interactive video or written cases.

Together, knowledge-based material needs to be integrated
with case-based learning as the necessary two ingredients for effective RCR
education for biomedical scientists. Case-based ethics training in RCR is
valuable because it promotes ethical awareness of situations that might occur in
a lab and provides knowledge and skills on how to best handle them. This
training also engages scientists because they can relate to the cases, which
causes them to reflect on ethical situations by putting themselves into the
roles of the different actors to better understand their values, motives, and
reasons. And certainly, providing some important background facts on a topic
and drawing them to resources are absolutely necessary for researchers to get
an overview of the topic. Incorporating developments from research on research
integrity into lectures and workshops will provide current information and
demonstrate the evolving nature of the field. This training format
incorporating important knowledge-based information and cases for biomedical
scientists will help students realize that ethical situations in research are
unlikely to be black and white.  Students
will also realize that how situations are handled is a key part of ensuring
they don’t escalate and in preserving lab morale and collegiality.

More work on the effectiveness of RCR training is needed,
especially in understanding whether training improves ethical behavior. It
should be noted, though, that providing RCR training is intrinsically
important. It raises awareness and highlights the importance of the ethical
conduct of research and the role of scientists in society.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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