Preliminary analysis “Doctoral Studies and Academic Integrity”

Foreword

We are conducting a survey of doctoral study directions. This study will enable the heads of doctoral schools, ombudsmen and integrity referents in academic institutions to compare their practices with those of other similar institutions.

The data collection will be carried out from January to June 2020 from our samples in France, Switzerland, Montenegro/Kosovo, Spain/Portugal, Romania and Canada. The results will be presented at the International Colloquium for Research and Action on Academic Integrity in Coimbra, on 30 and 31 October 2020, which will bring together actors involved in the development of integrity policies and who have taken an active part in carrying out these surveys.

Preliminary analysis “Doctoral studies and academic integrity”

Preliminary Analysis “Doctoral Studies and Academic Integrity”

Michelle Bergadaà

1. Introduction

We conducted a survey among heads of doctoral studies (Doctoral Schools) in France, Portugal and Romania during since January 2020. The open-ended questionnaire consisted of 21 questions covering 6 themes: Theme 1: Identification of facts, Theme 2: Institutional guidelines, Theme 3: Internal and external communication, Theme 4: Monitoring and control, Theme 5: Training of teachers and students, Theme 6: Complaints handling and mediation.

This interim report was written on the basis of a floating analysis of the first thirty questionnaires filled in on 227 Directors of Doctoral Schools solicited. By the Directors of Doctoral Schools in France, during the pre-test period of the questionnaire. As these are qualitative analyses, the in-depth examination of thirty detailed responses (13.2% of respondents) is already sufficient to carry out a floating analysis, but of course not to propose a structuring of the field, a social representation of the concept of integrity in doctoral schools, nor profiles by geographical zones.

The questionnaire will be disseminated more widely during the months of March to June 2020 and will allow a comparison of practices by geographical zones. The results will be presented at the Coimbra Conference to be held on 30-31 October 2020.

2. Respondents and non-respondents

A first general observation is the low level of interest in our study among the majority of the people we personally contacted. A response rate of 13.2% is low for people in programme management positions.

This may, in the long run, raise the question of whether the function to which managers are assigned is not in itself a devalued function because it is exercised in a context of rapid rotation which does not allow them to be agents of action and change . A kind of institutional façade, as one respondent suggests: “institutions are, in a certain way, obliged to assume it without, however, giving it the necessary means to contribute to the development of an institutional culture based on integrity”.

On the other hand, a few, on the contrary, were passionate about the questions we asked, which allowed them to “think” in a “new” way. Although in this questionnaire we ask for short answers, the reflective power of the respondents opens up important avenues for discussion.

When we delve deeper into the underlying reasons for the lack of interest when we asked them directly (via Skype or at our conferences), two hypotheses emerge

 

  • The lack of knowledge/competence of the respondents. Even if they are in programme management positions, integrity is not part of their responsibility for training and knowledge creation. They “take a hands-off approach”: “There are optional or mandatory integrity courses of a few hours’ duration and they feel that this is sufficient”.
  • Lack of experience of recently appointed individuals. They say that they cannot answer the questionnaire because they do not have sufficient hindsight. Some of them are in a management position because it is a “necessary step” in an academic career. In this category, we find people who only think of “integrity” in reference to serious fraud and do not see the small deontological drifts of everyday life. All the more so as the latter are sometimes committed by close colleagues whom they do not wish to confront.

Thus a very wide variance in the sensitivity of directors of doctoral studies or doctoral schools is emerging. For some of them, integrity is not the core of their profession, and they say that they “have texts on the subject”. For others, on the other hand, there is debate in committee, reflection, the setting up of systems and innovation in this area.

3. Floating response analysis

We illustrate our analysis here with verbatim reports from significant respondents of the induced dimensions.

  • Concerning the difficulties encountered by these directors in direct contact with doctoral studies, they are of three types
    – Feedback. For example: “The reporting of wrongdoing is often delicate (absence of flagrant proof, fear of psychologically violent reactions or of not being heard) even though procedures exist and are known.
    – Fear. Thus: “Lack of support from the authorities for fear of punishing influential colleagues who bring in funding.”
    – Incompetence, lack of commitment or lack of time to accompany doctoral students by thesis supervisors: “Research directors and more broadly supervisors are not always specialists in some of the points addressed in the theses and can be misled”.
  • Concerning the nature of the offences committed, we note that none of the thirty respondents in our sample distinguishes in their answers between offences relating to a problem of morality, deontology, ethics or responsibility. Depending on the discipline, the answers remain limited to plagiarism and/or data manipulation. No mention is made of deontology. For example, the addition of authors’ names, the inversion of the order of authors, the use by several doctoral students of data collected exclusively by one of them, etc. are not mentioned.
  • As regards the systems set up within the Doctoral Schools, they are also always interpreted – with one exception – as being intended for students. It is necessary to wait for the question on the training of supervisors to obtain answers targeted at the latter. This is all the more astonishing since some people stress the problems of supervision. For example: “There may be forms of complacency on the part of some colleagues that lead them not to denounce them, generally for reasons of image (of themselves, of the laboratory, etc.)”.
  • Concerning the form of the devices, they sometimes take the form of a letter to be signed by the doctoral student or a charter. It should be noted that the charter is signed during the welcome days even though the doctoral student has no idea what the academic world will be like for most of them. However, we all know that ethical problems arise during the writing process and/or the analysis of data, either months or years after the welcome days. None of the respondents spoke of debating and verifying ownership of ethical conduct. It is left to the free choice of doctoral students: “a 24-hour training course is recommended, presented in the training catalogue”.
  • With regard to integrity awareness (i.e. of students), it takes the most general form of about 15 hours of formal ethics education, whether mandatory or not. These courses are delivered by “ethics specialists”. Are they philosophers? Specialists in the disciplines? This is not debatable. On the other hand, with the exception of one Doctoral School in France, these courses are not given like those at IRAFPA on the basis of concrete situations arising from real cases and role-playing and group work. They are courses chosen à la carte without any in-depth reflection on the real needs of doctoral students.
  • Concerning the mechanisms for reporting cases of integrity breaches and the handling of complaints: unsurprisingly they are non-existent. There is also no training in mediation and, when confronted with conflict situations between PhD students and supervisors, there is no differentiation between relational problems and integrity violations. The aim is to solve problems, not to understand the underlying integrity issues. However, a PhD student can make mistakes (see below on integrity training methods) and abusive supervisors are only reported when it is too late: when the PhD student has obtained his or her title, has gotten a job and decides to complain.
  • With regard to the experience gained on the basis of misconduct cases, we asked the question: “Is an annual summary report of integrity cases made? “The unanimous answer is “No”. How then to take the measure and make people take the measure of the problems encountered. How to capitalise on the experience? But the answer is without appeal, when it comes to preserving peace: “Such a pooling, even anonymous… could also have effects of suspicion harmful to the good life of the laboratory. Communication must therefore be made directly to the people concerned, face to face and, if necessary, to their immediate environment” the argument is surprising, having always had as a leitmotiv at IRAFPA to pacify communities. Transparency and community involvement are essential, especially as rumours always circulate when integrity is breached.
  • Finally, with regard to the involvement of thesis supervisors in the search for devices that promote integrity, the need is recognised. But discouragement: “Recent organisation, dysfunctional since its creation and absolutely understaffed administratively. It would be a good idea to require that all supervisors be trained in HIA before supervising anyone? “or “My experience is that of a DE director in a dysfunctional structure where HIA is a real issue that is not much discussed because we are busy with other tasks.

4. Crisis and Responsibility

None of the respondents in our sample – despite being very involved and responding at length to our questions – seems able to impose the view that knowledge delinquency behaviours take root during doctoral studies and then no longer vary[1].

Paradoxically, everyone is aware of a certain crisis of publication, of the impact of article retractions and false knowledge. Sometimes excused by the pervasive “publish or perish” rule and institutional rankings.

According to the figure below, when a breach of integrity occurs and translates into a crisis within their unit or organisation, the vast majority of the directors interviewed are confined to steps 1 to 4 of the functional arrangements. As they do not have a history of the situations, very few of them try to analyse the causes (step 5) and reassess the arrangements (step 6).

None of the respondents in the sample is in the logic of inductive understanding and does not apply a precautionary principle, thus weakening academic responsibility. This is undoubtedly the reason why there are real offenders of knowledge, well-known personalities whose lack of academic integrity then makes journalists look good.

 

[1] Bergadaà (2015), Le plagiat académique : comprendre pour agir. L’Harmattan, coll. Questions contemporaines.

Fig. 1 : Gestion de crise. Site IRAFPA.

Rapport provisoire. Genève, 30 mars 2020.