Games will teach research ethics to University of North Texas graduate students

Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 19:42

DENTON (UNT), Texas — Pressured to complete a thesis or doctoral dissertation with viable research results, a graduate student may be tempted to include false data or plagiarize others’ findings.

A group of University of North Texas researchers has received a $300,000, three-year National Science Foundation grant to develop three interactive games focusing on research ethics that graduate students will use to add to the ethics training already offered by UNT’s Toulouse Graduate School.

The research team, led by Joseph Oppong, associate dean for research and professional development in the Graduate School, previously received a $50,000 National Science Foundation grant to create a prototype card game that presents students with different scenarios for cheating on research results, as a method of receiving additional research grants. Graduate students in the UNT Department of Chemistry and College of Engineering tested the game earlier this year, and more students will play it this semester. Oppong said the students will fill out questionnaires about ethics in science before and after playing the game. 

“Rather than instructing students in ‘the right thing to do,’ then testing whether they know ‘the right thing to do,’ this project places students in situations in which they must decide what to do,” Oppong said. “We’ve already noticed that the game is an excellent tool for stimulating discussion about ethics.”

Staff members from UNT’s Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, which provides resources and networking for researchers and students interested in interdisciplinary research and education, are providing the concepts for ethics training that will be included in the games.

Oppong said both the NSF and the National Institutes of Health mandate ethical training for all faculty and graduate students who work on research funded by the agencies.

The Graduate School currently offers at least one professional development workshop on ethics per semester for students, and students who will work on research projects funded by NSF and NIH grants must complete research ethics training. One current option is an online training program developed by the University of Miami’s Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative. Students receive certificates for completing the ethic training modules in the program.

Adam Briggle, assistant professor of philosophy and religion studies and a faculty fellow with the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, said that while the training modules follow traditional research ethics and teach rules, the games will be based on virtue ethics, which emphasizes the development of character, empathy and good habits.

“By immersing students in situations where they must make ethically-charged decisions, the games will make ethics real in a way that responding to questions asked in the online training does not,” he said. “We want students to think of ethics as intrinsic to the practice of science and not separate from science.”

Oppong called the importance of ethics in research “foundational to the credibility of science itself.”  He noted that human lives could be at risk if, for example, a published study on a medication’s effectiveness is based on false information, with information left out about the medication’s risky side effects. 

According to a story printed last March in Science Insider, the NSF is investigating nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism drawn from a single year's worth of proposals funded by the agency. The NSF has also reported that 80 percent of the findings of research misconduct issues during past 10 years involve plagiarism.   

Briggle said that while copying another’s work is certainly an ethical issue, being accountable for taxpayer dollars that fund research is equally important.

“Students may see ethics as barriers to scientific discovery, but ethics can have a productive side. You have an obligation to be more creative to achieve results,” he said.

He said the other games that the research team will develop may include a “race to tenure” card game, in which students would bid on research proposals and determine co-authorship of papers, and another game that would cast students as peer reviewers and program officers for research grants.



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