1 Research Ethics and Integrity in Universities: Why is It a Crucial Topic?

Research ethics is an issue of vital interest for universities, as institutions whose mission combines teaching and research [1]. Research offers endless and unquestionable benefits when it is conducted in an honest and reputable manner. It advances scientific knowledge, thereby contributing to social improvement and/or wellbeing by helping to solve all manner of problems, and it ensures educational curricula keep abreast with the most recent knowledge, among many other aspects.

Nevertheless, research is not always performed according to the standards and aims that should be expected [2,3,4,5].Footnote 1 For instance, the basic principles protecting research participants’ personal data are sometimes violated, or informed consents are not managed correctly. On other occasions, research misconduct takes the form of duplicate publications, failure to cite research work that should be mentioned or, conversely, including citations to boost the impact of colleagues’ or friends’ research. On the other hand, relationships with colleagues, especially those in the earlier stages of their career, may be subject to manipulation or abuse of power. Such bad practices are a growing concern, particularly because they proliferate in fiercely competitive and highly demanding contexts like universities [7,8,9]. It is therefore unsurprising that the concept of “publish or perish” is often criticised as being potentially harmful to scientific integrity [10].

Research ethics and the governance of ethics (see Chapters 1 and 2 in this volume), particularly the implementation of instruments such as codes of good practices or ethics committees, are especially important in this context. Indeed, they are of paramount importance to promote a scientific culture based on integrity or an honest scientific culture that guides both individual and collective actions [11,12,13].

The objective of this chapter is to present some of the steps followed in setting up an ethical governance system with RRI tools at Universitat Jaume I (UJI).Footnote 2 This process was carried out between 2020 and2022 in the frame of the European ETHNA System project [1, 14].

2 Developing RRI at the UJI

Codes of good practices and ethics committees are two of the main building blocks in processes to implement responsible research and innovation (RRI) [14,15,16,17,18]. They can help to promote transparency in the research process with the aim of aligning research with society’s values and priorities, or addressing socio-ethical issues.

Institutionalisation and implementation processes in universities are notoriously problematic due to their complex organisational structure, in which very different and interrelated tasks overlap and complement one another: management, teaching, research and knowledge transfer to society, public engagement, and accountability [19,20,21,22]. Universities are divided into decentralised structures and departments that are not free from conflicts and internal tensions [23]. The challenges that arise from implementing RRI in universities have led to calls in the literature for reflection on the meaning of good governance [24,25,26,27,28]. Likewise, attempts are also being made to properly define the steps to follow when implementing RRI, especially given the wide range of aspects involved: roles and profiles, tasks, levels of engagement, regulations and procedures, and the specific structures that support them [29, 30].

During the implementation process at the Universitat Jaume I, every effort was made to bear these aspects in mind and to be aware of the limitations and difficulties involved when promoting research ethics. The process focused especially, albeit not exclusively, on two key instruments: the code of good practices in research and research ethics committees.Footnote 3 The implementation took place during a research period of approximately two years and involved three phases: 1) reviewing the existing tools in the institution and researchers’ perception of ethical research matters and RRI; 2) participatory drafting of the code of good practices and the regulations for the new ethics committees; 3) public presentation, debate and approval of documents.

2.1 The Review

The first step in our implementation process was to observe what other institutions with similar characteristics were doing. Ethics committees and codes of good practice in research at other Spanish universities and research organisations were closely analysed. At the same time, the ETHNA guidelines proved useful for defining potential content for the code of good practice [31]. In addition, we carried out an in-depth analysis of the university’s existing structures, regulations, procedures and tools related to research ethics. This process showed that some basic tools were already in place, such as a code of ethics, a deontology committee and an ethics hotline. At the same time, various departments had considerable experience in managing some RRI keys, such as open access (Library Service), gender equality (Equality Unit) and research integrity (the Deontology Commission and the Animal Welfare Ethics Committee). This exploration identified the way the existing ethical governance mechanisms were structured and interrelated.

An internal survey was also conducted between 5 May and 13 June, 2021,Footnote 4which asked the university community about its perceptions and concerns in relation to five thematic areas. Specifically, there were eight questions on open access, four on gender equality, seven on bad research practices, four on knowledge of research ethics, and six on the institution’s ethical governance. The survey yielded 539 responses from a total population of 1,030 teachers, representing a response rate of 52.33%.The survey population included researchers from four professional categories (R1, R2, R3 and R4),Footnote 5 corresponding to the following levels: R1 (first stage researcher, up to the point of PhD); R2 (PhD holders or equivalent who are not yet fully independent); R3 (established researchers who have developed a certain level of independence); R4 (leading researchers at the top of their research area or field).

The survey covered all areas of knowledge: Arts and Humanities, Health Sciences, Sciences, Social Sciences and Law, and Engineering and Architecture. The initial review phase allowed us to draw a series of conclusions for the implementation process:

  • The university had a series of basic RRI tools. Therefore, the implementation project did not need to start from scratch.

  • Different units and researchers dealt with essential matters of research ethics, and also of RRI in general, but their tasks were not always coordinated or delimited.

  • The scientific community showed an interest in these matters as indicated by the high survey response rate and the fact that researchers provided exhaustive qualitative-type replies to the open question.

  • The respondents’ knowledge of the existing ethical governance structures was moderate or poor: 41.93% was aware of the university’s code of ethics, 30.24% was aware of the Deontology Committee and the Animal Welfare Ethics Committee, and 2.60%knew about the ethics line.

  • Regarding the question about the prevalence of research misconduct in their knowledge area, 80.15% of the respondents expressed concern about its proliferation at the national level. Some forms of research misconduct were highlighted, such as using personal influence for personal gain (41%) or the abuse of power over researchers in lower positions (26.53%). The least frequent types of misconduct, according to the survey participants, were conflict of interest (6.83%) and plagiarism (2.60%).

  • Researchers expressed strong interest in key RRI matters such as open access (73.29%), which they considered important or very important, but acknowledged they knew very little about it: 35.06% of respondents stated that their knowledge on available open access channels was “null” and 34.51% said it was “poor”. Similar results emerged for other RRI keys like gender or integrity, albeit to a lesser extent. In general, the data suggested that while there was interest in the RRI keys, respondents knew much less about how to implement or develop them.

2.2 Defining the Implementation as a Participatory Process

The information obtained in the review phase allowed us to define the short- and long-term objectives for the implementation process. Particularly urgent targets were to develop a new code of good research practices, renew the Deontology Committee (and turn it into an ethics committee) and incorporate administration staff members who would be tasked with supporting the research community in matters of research ethics. Similarly, the importance of adopting new tools to address the concerns raised in the survey was noted. One priority in this direction was to provide tools that allowed researchers to integrate key aspects of RRI: gender equality, open access and research integrity, and good (and bad) practices.

Having collected this information and defined the main objectives, a participatory implementation process was begun, following the ETHNA System guide. The aim of this process was to involve a range of stakeholders, especially internal agents who already played a role in matters of research ethics.

In line with the above, the following steps were undertaken:

  • Step 1. The ETHNA project team members drafted an initial proposal for each of the RRI keys––governance, communication and public engagement, integrity, open access and gender––to be included in the code of good practices and in the regulations of the new ethics committees.

  • Step 2. These five drafts were discussed with the university’s top management in order to ensure that the proposals were aligned with the university’s policies.

  • Step 3. Each draft was debated in five working groups (between January and April 2022) made up of internal stakeholders, each group working on one of the RRI keys. In addition, a working group of external stakeholders was set up. The working groups met in person to discuss the drafts of the code of good practices and the regulations for the new ethics committees.

  • Step 4. Participants from each RRI key working group were given ten days to comment and make proposals for improvement.

Taking part in this process were 43 UJI community membersFootnote 6 and seven external members (Table 1). Bilateral meetings were also organised to deal with specific topics, such as data protection, occupational health, and safety.Footnote 7

Table 1. Number of participants in the participatory process

The process so far can be defined as successful in terms of the level of involvement of participants in each of the working groups. A ‘neutral facilitator’ figure was appointed to each group, which helped to encourage high levels of participant involvement. This person was familiar with the document under discussion and the whole process, but had not been involved in writing the draft. By proceeding in this way, the neutral facilitator helped to guarantee an open space for debate and ensured that participants would not be influenced by the opinions of the authors of the drafts. The literature on participatory processes strongly advises creating a space for group work in which the participants really feel that their contributions are relevant and are being considered [33, 34].

Another key feature of this participatory process entailed mapping people and services with expertise on each RRI key, which encourages their engagement and favours the efficiency of their interventions.

2.3 Process of Public Presentation, Debate and Approving Documents

Once the documents on the RRI matters had been prepared with the participation of the key stakeholders from the institution, the process opened out to the whole university community. Documents were posted on the university’s official website, where all members of the university community could add comments and proposals over a period of several weeks (September 2022).

The documents were then also discussed with representatives of the two main university bodies involved in research: the Commission for Research and Doctoral Studies and the Governing Council. Although only five contributions were received during the public presentation phase, the drafts were once again discussed in the representative bodies. These discussions focused on the definition of certain bad practices, such as duplicate publication; the delimitation of criteria defining conflict of interest; concerns about so-called predatory publishing; and different theoretical and practical approaches to gender mainstreaming in research.

3 Most Outstanding Results

The outcomes of the implementation process were:

  1. 1.

    The Code of Good Practices in Research and Doctoral Studies;

  2. 2.

    New ethical governance structures: the Research Ethics and Integrity Committee, the Human Research Ethics Committee and the Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee;

  3. 3.

    Training and dissemination material on RRI;

  4. 4.

    Appointment of a specialist in research ethics to support the research community (defined as an RRI Officer).Footnote 8

In more detail:

  1. 1.

    The Code of Good Research Practices is structured according to the four main RRI themes. Each section includes commitments and good practices at both institutional (university) and individual (researcher) levels. All these sections also contain a glossary of the basic concepts to clarify understanding of the issues involved (especially among those who recognised their lack of knowledge in the survey).Footnote 9

  2. 2.

    The role of the new Research Ethics and Integrity Committee merits further attention. This committee was created with the purpose of promoting integrity and excellence in research (e.g. developing good practice guidelines). Its structure combines new specialist profiles (public engagement, research ethics, and gender) with existing profiles from the university’s top management (head of the research service, head of the doctoral school, vice-rector of research). Some new profiles were also included in the Human Research Ethics Committee and the Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee (specialists in methodology, gender perspective).

  3. 3.

    In addition to the code and the ethics committees, the project has raised awareness among the academic community through new training material. At the same time, the implementation project led to significant improvements in all the information and training material available on the research ethics section of the website (new and more detailed templates for the preparation of the ethics report, models of informed consent, FAQs on ethics and research, etc.).Footnote 10For good reason, the literature emphasises training as one of the key points for implementing RRI [37]. The objective of this training is to raise awareness about the relevance of these tools and their usefulness in encouraging the integration of research ethics.Footnote 11

  4. 4.

    Finally, the most relevant change was the incorporation of an RRI Officer. This new professional position helps to ensure an integrated structure within the ethics committees. The RRI Officer has also become the institution’s main contact person for advising the research community on the basic principles of RRI.

4 Barriers and Drivers in the Implementation Process

Implementation processes require a series of conditions to be able to make institutional changes, which is normally a complex matter. In this process, drivers and barriers are likely to arise, and can either favour or slow down the process. It is important to be aware of these conditioning factors when promoting research ethics and RRI tools.

Barriers 1 and 2.

Some of the most notable barriers in the implementation process, and that tend to be common in other experiences, affect aspects such as lack of knowledge across the researcher community about the main RRI keys, scepticism about the relevance or need to promote research ethics, or the fear of increased research “red tape” [39,40,41,42,43].

The review phase revealed that such problems also affect the UJI. Furthermore, the implementation process showed us that the process demands considerable effort from the participants, especially those tasked with writing and updating drafts after each phase of the participation. The process revealed that, in order to overcome this barrier, the community must be open to participation, and a small, but extremely active, group is needed throughout the implementation process. However,certain drivers allowed us to advance and overcome difficulties during the process. In the case of the UJI, the main drivers fell into two types: those typically associated with the institution and external drivers.

Driver 1.

The institutional drivers firstly include the wholehearted commitment of both the university and its top management. Engagement in the governance process takes place at various levels: at the leadership level, at the management level and at the level of the researchers themselves. This bottom-up and top-down involvement favours the engagement of key actors, those with expertise in RRI core issues [44,45,46]. This first driver is complemented by a series of external drivers, which can perhaps be defined as a general ecosystem that favours the development of research ethics and RRI in general. Such aspects are essential for promoting implementation.

Driver 2.

In the specific case of the UJI, the implementation process coincided with the university’s commitment to the quality accreditation process of HR Excellence in Research (HRS4R) and the principles of the European Charter [47, 48]. This policy testifies to the strong, clear commitment from the top management team, as well as the capacity to mobilise resources, for instance, to hire an RRI Officer.

Driver 3.

A further series of external favourable developments derive from the new requirements placed on funders of research and academic journals. Spanish Law 14/2011 on Science, Technology and Innovation highlights the importance of the professional ethics dimension in carrying out research, the role of ethics committees, and the promotion of codes of good practices and the main RRI keys. This law was reinforced with the draft bill of 17 January 2022, which amends Law 14/2011, and establishes the importance of monitoring aspects of ethics and integrity in scientific practices and research work.

Driver 4.

Research funders are also promoting the key role of ethics when funding projects. They expect key requirements to be met, such as applying the 3Rs in animal research (replacing, reducing, refining), opening access to results, protecting the integrity and the data of those participating in research with human beings, and taking into account environmental impact and biosecurity parameters, particularly in research with biological agents and genetically modified organisms. These matters are gradually being included in and expected from applicants in European (Horizon 2020, Erasmus +, ERC, Erasmus Mundus, KA2, etc.) and national calls, both public (state research agency calls, FECYT, UJISABIO, Generalitat Valenciana calls, etc.) and private (Foundations such as BBVA, Mapfre, la Caixa, etc.).

Driver 5.

Finally, research journals are increasingly requesting an ethics validation report for research proposals, which is issued by the research ethics committee or a similar organisation, as a requirement to publish the research results obtained.

All these requirements, which derive from European or Spanish laws, funders or publications, act as allies in the process to promote research ethics and RRI. This is because, on the one hand, they amend the context and the “game rules” in which research is to be conducted and, on the other hand, they act as a direct incentive to expose the relevance of such matters to the research community. Throughout the implementation process and the discussions held, it was of paramount importance to present these innovations deriving from the “research ecosystem”, and to evidence their relevance and specific practical nature (especially where reluctance or scepticism about RRI was observed).

5 Some General Conclusions

The implementation process at the UJI shows, as is also stressed in the ETHNA project (see also Chapter 4 of this book) that the success (or failure) of promoting research integrity relies on several key factors. The literature highlights that the institutionalisation of RRI depends on the essential role of good leadership in promoting research ethics [1, 49,50,51,52]. In this way, institutional support offers the conditions that will enable the process to be subsequently and successfully carried out. At the same time, the commitment from the research community is also crucial since their engagement and participation will allow instruments such as the code of good practices and the ethics committees to be fully implemented and used. As Stirling points out, implementation aims to strike a potential balance between the top-down and bottom-up processes [53]. With this balance, and with a defined participative process, the research community comes to trust the process, making it possible to follow in line with integrative and plural dynamics.

Furthermore, implementation processes such as the one at the UJI bring to the surface some very basic issues; these are:

  • the support and conviction of the institution’s top management will be a determining factor for implementation to be truly deep-rooted

  • the combination or balance between the top-down and bottom-up processes is another essential (and complex) matter in implementation processes

  • the set of norms that define research, such as funding agencies, publications, academic associations, etc., will be another fundamental piece of the jigsaw. The current situation is favourable for raising awareness about the relevance of promoting research ethics.

Three final reflections emerged in the implementation process that may be of relevance for other implementers or institutions that wish to embark on the same process:

  • implementation needs to be understood as a long-term process that takes small steps successfully and makes minor achievements, but is always an on-going and open process

  • those participating in the process need plenty of patience and the capacity for dialogue if they wish to convince people of the usefulness of ethics management tools, rather than imposing them

  • devising training courses and/or seminars that raise awareness about issues of RRI is a necessary step for tools, codes and committees to become fully relevant.