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Research Ethics in the Assessment of PhD Theses: Footprint or Footnote?

A Publisher's Erratum to this article was published on 03 August 2017

This article has been updated

Abstract

There is an expectation that all researchers will act ethically and responsibly in the conduct of research involving humans and animals. While research ethics is mentioned in quality indicators and codes of responsible researcher conduct, it appears to have little profile in doctoral assessment. There seems to be an implicit assumption that ethical competence has been achieved by the end of doctoral candidacy and that there is no need for candidates to report on the ethical dimensions of their study nor for examiners to assess this integral aspect of researcher development. In the context of ensuring that institutions are fulfilling their responsibility of producing ethically sensitive and competent researchers, it is salient to investigate whether doctoral thesis examiners make comment about ethical issues in their reports. This study analysed an archive of examiner reports to identify the frequency, magnitude and nature of examiner comment about ethics. Although comment was rare (5% of reports) examiners provided: prescriptive instruction on ethical review processes; formative instruction on the design, conduct, and reporting of research projects; and positive or negative judgments about a candidate's ethical competence, the latter often aligned with meeting, or not meeting, 'doctoral standards'. The scarcity of ethics in examination criteria and examiner reports implies a silence that needs to be addressed to ensure graduating candidates are prepared to conduct ethical and responsible research.

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  • 03 August 2017

    An erratum to this article has been published.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge co-investigators on one of the studies used in this paper (ARCDP110103007) Dr. Margaret Kiley, Professor Brian Paltridge and Professor Sue Starfield.

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Correspondence to Allyson Holbrook.

Ethics declarations

Human Research Ethics Committee Approval Numbers: H-973-100; H-639-1107; H-2011-0109. Approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee requires evidence of informed consent.

Funding

This work was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council Discovery Grant Scheme: DP343462; DP0880092; DP110103007

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

The original version of this article was revised: Due to an oversight by the Publisher during the typesetting stage, an uncorrected version of the paper was published. The revisions submitted by the author had not been carried out. The paper has now been updated and includes all the author’s corrections. The Publisher apologizes for this error.

An erratum to this article is available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-017-9287-9.

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Holbrook, A., Dally, K., Avery, C. et al. Research Ethics in the Assessment of PhD Theses: Footprint or Footnote?. J Acad Ethics 15, 321–340 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-017-9276-z

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Keywords

  • Research ethics
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Researcher conduct
  • Doctoral assessment