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The Reversed Causalities of Doctoral Training on Research Integrity: A Case Study from a Medical Faculty in Denmark


Over the last decade, a plethora of international policies and guidelines on research integrity have been produced, and many countries have developed national codes of conduct. Recently, as a way of implementing these codes, institutions have begun offering mandatory training in research integrity for PhD fellows. This paper is based on a case study of a mandatory course in research integrity for PhD fellows at a faculty of medicine in Denmark (2017–18). The study comprised a small survey, participatory fieldwork, and interviews with six course participants, the course leader and a teacher. Based on this study, the paper shows that the PhD fellows perceived the integrity course as if it, to some extent, contributed to normalising the questionable research practice (QRP) and grey zone behaviour that the course was conceived to prevent. The interviews, however, also show that this latent normalisation must be seen in the context of the PhD fellows’ position within a strongly competitive culture, which sometimes rewards questionable behaviour. For this reason, creating a culture of research integrity cannot be accomplished by integrity training alone, it demands a wider structural change in the incentives for career advancement that sustain the current asymmetries of power.

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  1. A few weeks before the first course day, an online questionnaire was circulated amongst the 24 PhD fellows who had signed up for the course. The questionnaire provided demographic details about the participants’ field of study, gender, age and nationality, as well as their prior experiences with integrity matters. The questionnaire was distributed by email through the course leader two weeks before the course. A total of 22 out of 24 (90%) participants answered the survey, and 15 (60%) completed the full survey. The average participant was a 34.9-year-old PhD fellow in the field of medicine, molecular medicine or health, the youngest was 23 and the oldest was 50 years old by the time they participated in the course. Only two of the 22 respondents answered that they did not have any expectations for the learning outcome. The gender distribution was more or less even; nearly all were of Danish origin, having completed their last degree at a university in Denmark. Only two were of non-Danish origin and had completed their last degree in Norway and Iran, respectively. Irrespective of this homogeneous demography, the respondents’ experiences with research integrity prior to the integrity course were diverse. Half of them (48%) had not actively considered or addressed any integrity issues before the course. The other half (52%) had already actively considered or addressed integrity issues, for example regarding questions of authorship, patient ethics, or more technical questions of authorisations from the Danish Data Protection Agency, the Danish Medicines Agency or the Ethical Committee. The majority of the respondents had high expectations for their learning outcome of the course. Approximately 50% expressed a pragmatic-instrumental concern about obtaining more information about the rules and guidelines of research integrity; how to avoid pitfalls, and where to get help in order to do things properly from the start. The other half undertook a more reflexive- and process-oriented concern with a deeper level of understanding and reflection by discussing practical issues and real-life examples. Capturing the main differences between the pragmatic-instrumental approach and the reflexive approach revealed in the pre-survey was a key criterion for the selection of the three interviewees to inform the analyses presented in this paper.

  2. The concept of ‘problem narrative’ was not established as a prism for the analyses prior to the fieldwork, but was chosen along the way as diverse understandings of the purpose of integrity training emerged from comparing similar data on research integrity training on the three other faculties at the same university. Cf. Sarauw et al. (2019) these data displayed marked differences between the definition of the ‘problems’ the research integrity training for PhD fellows was intended to solve with different implications for the PhD fellows. The overall research project is described in further detail in the next section.

  3. Foucault (1982) argued that individuals respond to different situations and issues by adopting ‘subject positions’. Since each situation is unique and reflects current social expectations and contexts, positions are fluid, different positions can be maintained simultaneously.

  4. Grant ID: 6183-00003B.

  5. “Doer” is Interviewee C’s own wording in a part of the first follow-up interview, which is not included in this paper. However, I have chosen to take account of it here, because it indicates that Interviewee C, in particular in the beginning of his PhD period, saw the relation to the PhD supervisor as a ‘principal-agent’ relation, which was, by nature, asymmetrical.


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Correspondence to Laura Louise Sarauw.

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Sarauw, L.L. The Reversed Causalities of Doctoral Training on Research Integrity: A Case Study from a Medical Faculty in Denmark. J Acad Ethics 19, 71–93 (2021).

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  • Higher education policy
  • Academic development
  • Research integrity training
  • Responsible conduct of research (RCR)
  • Questionable research practice (QRP)
  • Research ethics