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PhD students encounter new Program for Scholarly Integrity

Beginning this fall, all PhD students in Emory’s Laney Graduate School—whether in epidemiology or English, pharmacology or philosophy—are required for the first time to gather together in the same classroom for a seminar not on their specific field of study, but on ethics and academic integrity.

The seminar is part of a new rigorous and cross-disciplinary training program focused on responsible and ethical conduct of research, scholarship and teaching for Emory graduate students in all disciplines, says Toby Schonfeld, PhD, of Emory’s Center for Ethics, which is partnering with the graduate school in rolling out the program.

Called the Program for Scholarly Integrity (PSI), the initiative began in 2012 with graduate students in the natural/biomedical/biological sciences, but has expanded this year to include humanities and social science students, a move Schonfeld says is innovative among major research universities.

Ethics across disciplines

"Given the changing nature of the job market, all students need to be cross-trained and demonstrate their expertise in more than one area," she says. "We are making sure that students in cancer biology also understand the ethical issues sociology or comparative literature researchers talk about, and vice versa," she says.

PSI at Emory is part of a national effort by universities in response to mandates issued by Congress in requiring all those who conduct research supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to receive training on the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), says Lisa Tedesco, dean of the Laney Graduate School.

"Our whole approach goes beyond compliance," says Tedesco. Emory's PSI "is about teaching students how to think about complex problems that require examination through an ethical lens or a research integrity lens."

Rare conversations

For Navyug Gill, a seventh year PhD student in history and graduate assistant for PSI, the introductory seminar with graduate students from every department is "extremely rare and valuable because of the kinds of conversations made possible in that setting."

Usually, says Gill, graduate students in a single department may come together at the beginning of their program to discuss such issues across their many specialties, "then everyone goes their own way, groups splinter off and have their own specialized conversations."

But having chemists talk with sociologists or mathematicians talk with art historians about their own unique ethical issues is "critically important at this time in higher education," says Gill. "With so much emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and the increasing uncertainty around academic careers, this kind of experience becomes indispensible to graduate training."

Program components

PSI at Emory is spread throughout each student's graduate career, says Schonfeld.

In addition to the introductory seminar, PSI includes a minimum of four sessions (workshops, training sessions or lectures) to encourage cross-disciplinary discourse about ethics in research and scholarship, and a minimum of six hours of program-based ethics material either within existing courses or through faculty-led workshops or journal clubs.

Emory has won two grants so far from the Council of Graduate Schools to develop its PSI and to expand the program to include international students, which Tedesco says is "about addressing the connectedness of the world and the global presence of our students."

For both U.S. students doing research abroad and for international graduate students coming here, "we want all students to think about responsible conduct of research in different contexts," says Tedesco.

"We're training students to be aware, ask the questions and understand it's something they have to pay attention to in an international setting," Tedesco says. "We're helping them create a critical thinking framework that is pertinent to a variety of settings."

Measuring results

PSI also includes a rigorous assessment of the program and its goals. Otherwise, says Gill, "these sessions could remain merely interesting conversations, or be seen as busy work or superfluous."

Among the tools used by PSI is an ethical measurement device developed by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, a scenario-based assessment given to students before and after they take the core seminar. The workshops also feature assessment tools designed to measure overall and specific objectives for each element, says Schonfeld.

"The program is making a concerted effort to give us actual tools we can apply," says Amanda Mummert, a fourth-year PhD student in anthropology.

"The other key component is that it's not just about you as the researcher and how you talk with your informants or measure your samples," she adds. "It's also about the relationship you have with your advisers, with your colleagues, and when you publish your work, how you represent yourself as a scholar and researcher."

As for the exposure to students and faculty from all different disciplines, Mummert is sold on the concept.

"All of the projects I've been looking at and the grant funding opportunities I'll pursue after completing my PhD rely on more of a team-based approach," she says. "If we can break down the barriers between specific content areas and in publishing and research, we'll be better producers overall."

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