April 2011

Undergraduate education in the responsible conduct of research

Although teaching RCR to undergraduates is not a new activity, we should seize the opportunities created by granting agency mandates.

Students  discuss a research ethics case.

The first federal mandate requiring education in the responsible conduct of research (RCR) was implemented in 1990 by the National Institutes of Health. The scope of that requirement was limited to trainees receiving support from specific types of NIH grants. Initially, the policy created anxiety and raised questions. Who, what, how and when would we teach RCR? Another course for the already overloaded curriculum? Don’t mentors do this already? Who’s going to pay for this? The angst from 20 years ago may rear its head from time to time, but it largely has given way to a variety of newly created teaching models, self-study packages, textbooks and a variety of resource materials.

The evolution of the graduate and postgraduate RCR curriculum has tracked with the implementation of other related research policies. Most notable are policies that prescribe sharing data or require a description of mentoring activities planned for grant-supported postdocs. The newest policy is found in the America COMPETES Act of 2007. It requires that National Science Foundation proposals “provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research to undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers participating in the proposed research project.”

The opportunity

The 1990 NIH RCR educational mandate required RCR instruction for Institutional National Research Service Award research training grants. This included awards under the Minority Access to Research Careers Program, which provides undergraduate training in academic research. Thus, mandated formal undergraduate instruction in RCR is not new. And with the NSF mandate in place for the past year, there has been increased thinking about and participation in undergraduate RCR teaching. Of course, there’s an army of faculty members who have been designing, refining and teaching RCR to pre- and postdoctoral trainees for more than 20 years. The collective experiences and the resources coming from this teaching have created a framework that is useful in informing how we should educate undergraduates.

Many scientists hold that it is our obligation to teach trainees about the responsible conduct of research. The early government mandates provided the catalyst for formalizing RCR education. They heightened awareness of the need for such instruction, and they accelerated the development of resource material. But the members of the scientific community are the stewards of the RCR educational movement. Although teaching RCR to undergraduates is not a new activity, we should seize the opportunity created by the NSF mandate. Beginning to instill the norms and culture of responsible research in undergraduates makes enormous sense. For those destined to devote their lives to science, the earlier they grasp the concept of responsible research, the better. And for those who don’t pursue careers as scientists, an RCR course may well afford a view of how science works. This is a good first step in facilitating a much-needed public understanding of science.

Engaging undergraduates in thinking and learning about RCR

The following are some thoughts to consider in developing or refining undergraduate RCR instructional curricula and platforms.


National Science Foundation Responsible Conduct of Research: A portal to NSF RCR education mandates and related resources.

National Science Foundation Grant Proposal Guide: Instructions on the required description of mentoring activities for postdoctoral fellows and a plan for data management and the sharing of research products.

Update on the Requirement for Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research: A one-stop shop for the NIH-based history of the RCR education movement, as well as current NIH policies and best practices in research conduct training.

NIGMS Guidance on Best Practices for Training in the Responsible Conduct of Research: Best practices and other resources in RCR education from the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, an agency that funds a broad array of research training and career awards.
National Center for Professional and Research Ethics: A digital library initiative funded by the NSF. The site is a comprehensive online resource for RCR education and contains presentations, courses, learning modules, animations and teaching materials. Registration is required, and users may upload their contributions to the library as well as participating in an interactive community forum.

Resources for Research Ethics Education: This website provides a wealth of resources and tools for teachers of research ethics. The site lists RCR topic areas, which are then individually linked to relevant background material, pertinent regulations and guidelines, sample discussion materials (e.g., cases and questions), and select resources. The site also presents overview material on possible educational settings and a full menu of discussion-tool material.

Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Research: A good collection of educational resources covering general research and engineering. The site features a wide range of well-organized, easily accessible cases and scenarios for class discussion.

Office of Research Integrity: This site contains RCR resources organized by topic in formats ranging from websites to videos. Some materials were developed with support from the Office of Research Integrity.

Council of Graduate Schools Project for Scholarly Integrity: The site contains RCR teaching resources organized in a well-designed page that allows searching for materials sorted by various parameters, such as scientific discipline.

Ethics Education Library: This features a good collection of ethics cases searchable by subject, examples of instruction methods developed by instructors in the field and syllabi of ethics courses from a range of disciplines.

International Dimensions of Ethics Education in Science and Engineering: The site is made up of useful materials, including teaching-module downloads and cases of broad interest. Emphasis is on the international dimensions of ethics in science and engineering.

Rationale, goals and objectives

Set the stage for learning by providing a rationale for the course. For example, you might note that science as a profession has specific laws (e.g., research subject use), policies (e.g., authorship) and best practices (e.g., record keeping) that apply to the conduct of research. There are codes and guidelines to be aware of and to abide by. The volume and complexity of these has grown dramatically in recent times, and learning cannot be effectively accomplished by trial and error, on-the-job training or observation of others’ behavior. Formal education that centers on such information provides the basis for acting responsibly and ethically in research. Create learning objectives that realistically reflect the content of your teaching. What new knowledge do you want to impart to build a foundation upon which responsible research conduct is based?


The NSF mandate did not recommend topics for inclusion in RCR teaching. However, the NIH instructional guidance recommends specific topics, including conflicts of interest, human and animal use, safe lab practices, mentoring, collaboration (including with industry), peer review, data acquisition, management, sharing and ownership, research misconduct and policies for handling it, authorship and publication, and the scientist as a responsible member of society. Critical thought should be given to the scope and depth of undergraduate RCR instruction. Undergraduates are not likely to have had much, if any, research experience. Thus, undergraduate RCR courses should be thought of as introductory in nature and designed accordingly.

Instructional format

Establish a course or program that is recognized by your institution. At the very least, students should receive an official document indicating completion of their RCR training. Presenting RCR education in the form of an official course that results in a grade is ideal. Ad hoc approaches, such as one-time workshops, occasional lectures and the like send a message that RCR training is incidental. Courses should be interactive. Online resources can augment the teaching of RCR but are not recommended as the sole means of instruction. Topics in RCR courses lend themselves to active learning. Small group, face-to-face discussions of cases, videos or current event coverage can be used with success. Role-playing scenarios that present ethical dilemmas are effective as well. Books, short stories, films and plays also can be used to engage students. Typically, RCR courses are taught by teams. Course directors should recruit researchers and content experts to help them deliver instruction. When an active researcher participates in the teaching, whether it is in the classroom or in a small group discussion, a powerful message is sent about the importance of RCR education.

Measure success

Use methods that enable assessment of student learning. Writing assignments that allow you to gauge mastery of the material are a good idea. Another strategy is to have students write cases for discussion in class or write solutions to previously written cases. Simple writing assignments include things like having students come to class with responses to relevant questions. For example, when covering the topic of conflicts of interest, have students briefly articulate an example of a conflict that might apply to them in the research training environment. Oral presentations offer other opportunities for instructors to confirm learning. Having students lead discussion of some relevant current event, news story, video clip or fictional vignette merits consideration. The evaluation of student learning should be tied to your course objectives. Keeping these objectives in mind will help guide you in selecting your method of evaluation. End-of-semester evaluations can provide information that may help you improve future course iterations. Such course evaluations are an accepted good practice and should be part of RCR education. But they do not provide information that allows you to verify that the students have learned the material and have met course objectives.

Concluding thoughts

Preparing scientists to conduct their work with integrity is crucial to the research enterprise. It ensures excellence in the process of knowledge creation. This, in turn, affords a better understanding of the world around us and provides the best opportunities to translate discoveries into applications that benefit humankind. Teaching and practicing responsible research conduct is necessary to earn and maintain the trust of our colleagues and, equally important, the trust of the public. It’s a big agenda, but it’s one that falls squarely on the shoulders of the scientific community. Our objective should be training that ensures the next generation of scientists will conduct their research responsibly and ethically.

Francis L. Macrina (macrina@vcu.edu) is the Edward Myers professor of dentistry and vice president for research at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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