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Academic integrity takes the spotlight in the era of ChatGPT

ASU graduate education course reinforces the importance of honest research

Close-up photo of words on paper, with the word "Integrity" being highlighted in pink.
February 17, 2023

In academia, the constant stream of project proposals, papers and dissertations can sometimes be overwhelming for scholars. When the stakes are high — and content-generating tools like ChatGPT exist — it is an unfortunate truth that some may be tempted to cut corners. However, academic and research integrity is crucial to maintaining the quality, thoroughness and factuality of academic work.

At Arizona State University, Graduate Education 591: Research Integrity offers a deep dive into honest reporting and research.

“Research misconduct includes a variety of acts such as plagiarism, data falsification and data fabrication,” said Kristy Holtfreter, who teaches the course and has been a professor at ASU since 2008.

Holtfreter became increasingly intrigued by academic integrity through an initial interest in workplace misbehavior, commonly referred to as white-collar crime (typically occurring in organizations, governmental entities, corporations and nonprofits), and sought to explore the impacts of it. Although this type of crime is often overlooked next to blue-collar crime, the ramifications are still significant.

Inspired to look deeper and bridge gaps between white-collar crime and scholastic dishonesty, Holtfreter immersed herself in local community efforts to bring awareness to the issue by participating in ASU's Peer Leadership Academy and later developing GRD 591 as part of her work serving as a fellow in the Graduate College.

“My research shows that there is a good amount of consensus across scientific fields that stress and pressure cause research misconduct among faculty members. This finding suggests that academic units should ensure their faculty, staff and students have access to resources promoting prosocial coping strategies," Holtfreter said.

"Policies and practices based on fraudulent research can threaten public health and safety, and can also decrease public confidence in the scientific enterprise. With this research in mind, it is clear that anyone in the education space — teacher, learner or community member — can benefit from this coursework."

GRD 591 reintroduces topics in the required ASU IRB CITI 1 & 2 and Human Subjects training for students and faculty conducting research projects. These topics include authorship roles and responsibilities, ethics codes, mentoring, research collaborations, conflicts of interest, data management, peer review, replication, causes and consequences, reporting, whistleblowing and prevention.

The class is taught in a seminar format and includes several interactive and applied activities. These include a workshop on the peer review process, an assessment of the codes of ethics in a professional society and the evaluation of real-life cases sanctioned by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Research Integrity.

The class takes a broad, interdisciplinary approach to research integrity and has relevance across majors and degree programs. However, it mainly focuses on the importance of peer review, mentorship, authorship, avoiding and reporting plagiarism, falsification, and data fabrication and replication, among other topics that apply to any research field, said Stephanie Geoghan, a first-year PhD student in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Geoghan described the most impactful takeaways of the seminar: "I would rather take time to conduct quality research and report my findings truthfully — even if they are insignificant or do not support my hypotheses — than succumb to pressure to publish or expand my CV. When research is thoroughly complete and done with integrity, it serves the purpose of providing answers. Insignificant findings still provide answers."

Bridget Mac Donald, a current master’s student in criminology, mirrors Geoghan’s sentiments about how integrity in research can have far-reaching impacts on the trajectory of an academic career, saying that choosing to skip steps, falsify reports and bend the truth to earn a degree will have ripple effects and dire consequences throughout one's career.

“Learning about the causes and effects of research integrity is extremely important because it shows the negatives of committing research misconduct and how to prevent a researcher from being put in a position where they commit research misconduct. It has terrible impacts on the research community. Therefore, it is a must that research is expected, encouraged and facilitated within research,” Mac Donald said.

While this information is valuable beyond academia and can inform the way we set laws and practices, the terminology has to be understandable for the general public for this to happen. Geoghan explains the importance of generalizing the subject of academic integrity: “One of the most important things I have learned is the value of producing research with integrity — research that should benefit practitioners and the general public. Researchers are working diligently to provide answers to questions related to crime, but research outcomes should translate into simple terms,” she explained.

Understanding what is happening in academic research can help define and implement best practices. It is imperative to maintain a culture of fairness and thoroughness when publishing research because the effects on the community are hard to ignore. Students, faculty and others in the education space have a special responsibility to support each other’s work by practicing integrity in every phase of their academic track. ASU students are encouraged to learn more and self-enroll in the Graduate College academic integrity training module on Canvas.

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