A research laboratory is the center of discovery and training of researchers at every level of experience and expertise. Research integrity pervades all aspects of lab life, beginning the moment a new student enters the lab and continuing through the development of independent research projects and programs. Human subject research in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) presents a unique array of research integrity issues—because inquiry focuses on individuals with communication difficulties and their families.
Following accepted ethical conduct and adhering to professional codes or norms is the basis of research integrity in the lab setting. The principal investigator of the lab is responsible for ensuring that all work done in that lab has ethical integrity. In a presentation on research integrity at an ASHA workshop for new investigators, Julie Washington began her talk by quoting the words of a Japanese proverb: “The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour.” This quote illustrates that research integrity is a central component of even the most established research lab. Research that has great potential to change our basic knowledge and the efficacy of our assessment and intervention paradigms could be destroyed by lack of attention to scientific integrity. In this short article, I focus on three scenarios that are central to laboratories in the CSD discipline.
Scenario 1: Introducing New Members to the Lab
When a new student, postdoctoral fellow, or other lab member enters the lab, it is important to assume that, although their intuitions and motives will be well-intentioned, they have incomplete knowledge of ethical conduct. The first course of action—usually required by the university—is formal (often online) ethics training. This introduction is critical for exposing new lab members to core features of human subject research and for explaining why we have tightly regulated policies and procedures. These policies may be the subject of complaint by even the most experienced researchers, but it only takes exposure to the Tuskegee experiments to make obvious the rationale for these regulations. These most egregious examples of human subject violations are only an introduction to ethics in the lab; the greater danger is in the less egregious examples that are more likely to occur. The ethical workings of a lab are subtle and complex, and lab-specific training is required for each individual context. New investigators must learn to comply with ethical procedures that result in high-quality and replicable data. Some effective approaches include written manuals that specify procedures that are unique to a given lab; these materials may include sign-offs verifying that new members reviewed and discussed these procedures. Because labs are dynamic, manuals require frequent revisiting and editing. Also, it is important that every member of the lab group understand the lab’s research aims. Often, along with formal ethics training during introductory phases, new lab members read papers or grant proposals that introduce them to target research questions. Pairing new lab members with more experienced researchers is essential for effective learning; new members are released to collect or analyze data independently only after they demonstrate understanding and the ability to appropriately implement lab procedures. Data collection and analysis notes need to be documented in pen or in electronic format. Weekly lab meetings should include discussion of lab-specific topics such as data management, human subject issues, authorship, and the inevitable mistakes that people make in data collection or analysis. It is critical that even the most senior members of the lab stay close to the daily workings and that all members model the ethical behavior that is required.
Scenario 2: Setting the Stage for High-Integrity Management of Data
The path to scientific results is one of discovery and exploration. Sometimes, lab members become tied to (or believe their mentor is tied to) a particular theory—all individuals in the lab must guard against over-commitment to a theory or result. It is essential to make clear at all points in the process that the laboratory group is on a hypothesis-driven road to discovery but that the initial hypothesis may well be wrong. This is the nature of scientific discovery. It is important to frequently remind all lab members that high-quality scientific results are the goal and to expose them to potential vulnerabilities, such as cherry-picking data, lacking appropriate experimental controls, or having incomplete documentation of experimental details. Blinding regarding clinical or typical control status often becomes an issue. Labs with high-tech equipment may be particularly challenging because only highly trained personnel can conduct data analysis. It is important that lab members openly discuss the fact that the data—not the original hypotheses—need to tell the story and that, in science, the most powerful results often are counter to predictions. The goal of science is truth—even if that means an arduous road to publication.
Scenario 3: Human Subject Research in CSD
Fortunately, all laboratories are required to incorporate consent procedures through which lab administrators inform of their rights. However, some unique aspects of research integrity are associated with individuals who have communication disorders—two issues in particular.
The first issue involves a frequent reality in CSD research labs: These individuals often are poor at communication—as is the case for a young child with developmental language disorder or an adult with aphasia. Lab members sometimes find it challenging to be sensitive to the line between encouragement and coercion. Their obligation is to be clear in conveying to participants their rights and in responding to the nonverbal cues of those who cannot clearly communicate.
A second issue involves the collection of detailed behavioral and physiological data. During data acquisition, we may observe areas of weakness that are not aligned with the initial rationale for the participant’s entry into the study. For example, a child may enter as a typical participant, but our diagnostic testing shows that her speech or language abilities are below expected levels. In this case, our clinical selves often emerge. However, we must remember that these families entered our lab as typical participants. One strategy is to ask families (whether typical control or clinical participants) whether they wish to receive a clinical report following their visit. If they check “yes,” then we are permitted to share our findings. Note that it is usually appropriate to suggest further evaluation rather than to provide a clinical diagnosis. It is challenging to avoid the transition from researcher to clinician. However, in the context of research integrity, this shift must be managed carefully. When recruiting research participants, strong clinician–research partnerships, where all are sensitive to the rights of human subjects, is one excellent approach.
In the CSD discipline, several specific and often nuanced considerations are related to research integrity. It is a critical ongoing exercise for all members of a research lab to identify and find solutions to points of vulnerability.
I acknowledge the faculty involved in the Lessons for Success conference for the ideas presented here. Special thanks to Elena Plante, Steve Camarata, Nancy Brady, Julie Washington, Kathy Chapman, and Bill Yost.