Virtues in research integrity

From The Embassy of Good Science

Virtues in research integrity

What is this about?

‘Virtue’ derives from ancient Greek - ἀρετή - and means ‘excellence of any kind’. To be virtuous means to strive towards living in compliance with one’s full potential, intellectually as well as morally. The reference to full potential shows that the ability to develop a virtue is innate yet, in order to become virtuous, one needs to practice. A distinction can be made between intellectual or epistemological virtues and moral virtues. Both types of virtues are character traits, relevant for research integrity, as doing good research requires intellectual and moral excellence.

Why is this important?

Research integrity is not only about following rules. It also requires personal engagement and competence. These requirements show that research integrity requires virtues. A person who is virtuous, not merely follows methodological or moral rules, but embodies goodness or excellence . [1] Goodness or excellence in research depends on what we do, as well as on who we are, intellectually and morally. The possession of a virtue says something about this person as a person. So, to tell of a person that she is imaginative or honest, is to say something about this person’s character. Aristotle described virtue as ‘the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his work well.’ [2] MacIntyre defined virtue as ‘an acquired human quality the possession and the exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods’. [3] MacIntyre, therefore, emphasized the importance of practice for the expression and development of virtues.

Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of virtues, intellectual and moral virtues. Examples of the first kind of virtues are critical thinking, curiosity, imaginativeness, perseverance and open-mindedness. Examples of moral virtues are courage, honesty, generosity, fair-mindedness, and justice. Although intellectual and moral virtues are distinct, they have in common that they are both character traits.

A number of attempts have been made to identify which virtues are essential for good scientific practice . [4] [5] These include: honesty;curiosity;attentiveness or observance;perseverance or patience; objectivity; humility to evidence; skepticism; meticulousness; courage; collaboration; resoluteness; accountability; availability; competency; reliability; sincerity; creativity; accountability; punctuality; truthfulness; selflessness; reflexivity; clarity of purpose; collaborative spirit; fairness; loyalty; moderation; positivity/open-mindedness; respectfulness.

According to Aristotle, a virtuous person has the disposition to act in accordance with the right middle. A virtuous person is able to see and do what is right in the specific situation, and knows how to avoid the extremes of showing too little or too much. An example of a virtue is courage. Someone who is brave knows how to find the right middle between the extremes of cowardice on the one hand and recklessness on the other. That applies not only to war, to the Greeks an important example of human action. It also applies to interacting with people with whom one collaborates. For example, if the person makes a mistake, it may be important to tell her ' the truth '. That requires courage, as the right middle between making an allusion in the hope that the other understands the message, and confronting the other in public with the fact that she does something wrong. What is the right middle depends on the situation, that is, the seriousness of the error, the openness of the other for the message, and the ability of the person who performs the act. In some cases the right middle is closer to being cautious;in other cases more emphasis is needed.

Being virtuous means living in accordance with one’s natural potential. Thus, virtues refer to human nature. Yet, developing virtues requires training and exercise in practice. In practice, one learns to see what is the importance of, for example, honesty as openness to criticism, and how it can be adequately shaped. How much attention should you devote to literature before you do a study? When does that literature help sharpen the mind, and when does it lead to confusion? Of course it is important to study existing investigations before one starts to research, for example by doing a systematic review. But how to ensure that this really gives an insight into what was previously found, and provides a connecting factor for further research? The same applies to the discussion of possible explanations for results of own research. What literature do you refer to, and how do you use it to sharpen the findings? Do the quoted articles really help them to better understand the outcomes of the study, draw conclusions and formulate new questions? The answer to such questions does not come from textbooks, but requires insights and skills that are already acquired in practice.

  1. Hursthouse, R. and Pettigrove, G (2016). “Virtue Ethics”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessible at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/.
  2. Aristotle (1925). Nicomachean ethics (translation D.W. Ross). Oxford: Clarendon Press
  3. MacIntyre, A. C. (2014). After virtue. London: Bloomsbury.
  4. Pennock, R. in Abstract nr PM-064. (2017) Available at: http://www.wcri2017.org/organization/conference-proceedings. (Accessed: 24th August 2017).
  5. Marusic, A. (confidential) Report on the results from the stakeholder focus groups.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Values and norms are core concepts in moral reflection about research integrity. For instance in Moral Case Deliberation (MCD), a method used to reflect on morally troublesome situations investigation of values and norms is used to deepen the understanding of the situation at stake. [1] A core element in this investigation, guided by a facilitator, is analysing the case by looking at the values and norms of all relevant perspectives (persons involved in the case and/or participants in the MCD meeting). Which values motivate each of the persons? How can these values be specified into norms for the person? For example, a moral issue might concern supervision. Should one, as a supervisor of a PhD student, in preparing a response to a reviewer, give guidance and correct mistakes, or at some point take over the writing? A relevant value for the supervisor in the case might be: autonomy. The corresponding norm in the case could be: I should give the opportunity to the PhD student to try this herself. Another value might be: effectiveness. The norm related to this value in the concrete situation could be: the article should be accepted and published. In analysing the case from the perspective of the supervisor, the group becomes aware of these conflicting values. This may then give rise to a dialogue on what value is most important in this situation. This can lead to a conclusion on the most desirable norm and related course of action. Also, the dialogue might provide insights in how to deal with the conflicting value which turns out less important. How can one do justice to the value which will not be realized? In the example, efficiency might turn out to be most important for the supervisor, meaning that at a certain point she will take over the writing. In order to do justice to the value of autonomy, the supervisor might, for instance, propose that the PhD student will get more responsibilty for writing the response after submission of the next article. MCD can thus foster decision making, not by prescribing a rule, but by fostering reflection and dialogue, enabling participants to achieve an new and richer view on the situation.

It is useful to differentiate between three different types of scientific values and norms: internal values and norms, external values and norms, and linkage values and norms . [2] Internal values and norms of science justify and guide the practice of science itself. Examples of scientific values of the internal kind are: truth, honesty, simplicity, consistency, coherence, economy, exactitude and completeness, openness, open-mindedness, confidence, originality and ‘interestingness’. External values and norms comprise general ideals and rules for action which are relevant for science, but are not constitutive of the practice of science itself. Examples of external values are human (and animal) welfare notions which are related to the wider social and cultural context in which scientists operate. Finally, we have a different set of values and norms guiding scientific research which represent normative points of contact - linkage - between the research community and the community at large, between internal and external values and norms. Examples are requirements of fruitfulness and relevance.

  1. MacIntyre, A. C. (2014). After virtue. London: Bloomsbury.
  2. Pennock, R. in Abstract nr PM-064. (2017) Available at: http://www.wcri2017.org/organization/conference-proceedings. (Accessed: 24th August 2017).

In Detail

This list might help when using virtues in e.g. teaching about responsible conduct of research.

Virtue Meanings in research integrity & ethics
Accountability Responsibility, answerability
Availability Efficaciousness, readiness to come to effect
Clarity of purpose Visionary, targeted, zeal
Collaborative spirit Cooperative, synergistic, sharing
Competency Expertise, proficiency, capability
Compliance Willingness to conform/follow
Courage Braveness, heroic resoluteness
Creativity Inventiveness, imagination, originality
Critical awareness Analytic, insightful, rationality
Curiosity Eagerness to know or to explore, inquisitiveness
Diligence Earnestness, perseverance in carrying out action
Empathy Understanding, compassion, recognition
Fairness Justice, equity
Honesty Truthfulness, candidness, sincerity
Humility Humbleness, modesty
Loyalty Faithfulness, allegiance, fidelity
Moderation Temperance, patience
Morality Ethicalness, righteousness, decency
Objectivity Neutrality, unbiased, impartiality, open-minded
Open-mindedness Willing to reconsider views, receptiveness, tolerance
Patience Perseverance, willingness to endure
Perseverance Dedication, determination, persistence
Positivity Alacrity, willingness
Punctuality Readiness, promptness, steadiness
Reflexivity Thoughtfulness, contemplativeness, deliberation
Reliability Trustworthiness, accuracy, dependability
Resoluteness Determination, persistence, purposefulness
Respectfulness Politeness, having good manners, courtesy
Responsibility Accountability, liable, trustworthiness, truthfulness
Selflessness Altruism, benevolence
Sincerity Earnestness, truthfulness, veracity, honesty
Thoroughness Care, scrupulousness
Transparency Clarity, not hiding, honesty, openness
Trustworthiness/truthfulness Honesty, accuracy, sincerity

Other information

Good Practices & Misconduct