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Postdocs and the Need for RCR Training

Research integrity has become an emerging topic with many high profile cases of misconduct.  In such dramatic cases, it is perhaps easy to think that a scientist's inner moral compass should be able to navigate such issues without training.  For some integrity-related decisions the answers can be plain, for example: Should I fabricate data? Should I steal someone else's ideas?  But, responsible conduct of research (RCR) -- especially for early career scientists -- is much more of a grey area than just "doing the right thing" and in fact constitutes all the small decisions made during the research activities of every day.  Some of the common decisions faced by postdocs may not be so clear cut, such as: Who should be first author on your first lab paper? Can you photoshop your publication images to make them easier to interpret?  What role should your advisor play in your new collaborations outside the lab? Such questions can be harder to answer, especially without good training or mentorship.

Despite recent moves at the federal level towards requiring training in RCR [1], many postdocs still do not receive guidance on these issues.  Sigma Xi's 2005 nationwide survey of postdocs found that nearly a third (31%) of respondents indicated having received no training in research ethics, with another third (33%) having received only informal, "on-the-job" training.  In the specific areas of intellectual property and conflict resolution skills, however, they found that almost two-thirds had received no training [2].  Other studies find similar results [3].   In the case of authorship, for example, studies find that most postdocs are unaware of the authorship guidelines mandated by their institution or professional community [4].  Other data suggest that this lack of training may result in instances of scientific misconduct among postdocs. In 2005, a study reported in Nature [5] found that 28% of early-career scientists -- the majority of whom were postdocs -- anonymously self-reported having committed at least one of the ten most common acts of questionable research behavior [6]. Similarly, the Office of Research Integrity found that between 1994 and 2003, postdocs accounted for 20% of proven misconduct cases [7]. While there seems to be a need for such training, it is also important that the training be responsive to the particular needs and concerns of postdocs and their phase of career advancement.

Many reports (see [8] and references therein) recommend that RCR is best taught in the broader context of general research skills, where responsible authorship, for example, is taught alongside scientific writing.  Whether incorporated into research and technical skill courses or taught as a stand-alone seminar, RCR should be framed within the larger context of the research enterprise and utilize case studies, interactive learning and other adult learning principles to engage postdocs. For postdoctoral scholars who no longer have a core curriculum of research courses, RCR topics have successfully been integrated into a range of professional development programs that teach such topics as grant writing, personnel management, budget development and leadership skills.  When asked on the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey what kind of formal training they would be interested in receiving, postdocs ranked research ethics last, whereas they put grant writing, lab management and project management at the top. Postdocs' clear interest in these types of professional development suggests they can provide a useful platform for teaching integrity-related topics. See the toolkit article on Choosing a Program Format for a sample of RCR programs using a range of formats.

RCR Topics for Emphasis

ORI has recommended nine core areas [9] for RCR training. Drawing on these, the NPA emphasizes the following areas for RCR training for postdocs:

While the first six topics are taken directly from the ORI core areas, the final topic -- communication and difficult conversations -- has been added due its particular relevance for postdocs.  It has been noted that perhaps the most effective form of RCR training is from a trainee's research advisor [10]; however, the success of this approach relies upon effective communication within the postdoc-supervisor relationship.  Furthermore, discussion of ethical situations in research, whether with colleagues, collaborators or supervisors, can lead to uncomfortable or difficult conversations especially for postdocs who may feel that their job security or visa status depends upon the goodwill of these individuals. Thus, training in effective communication can be an important part of mastering RCR topics in general.

Those interested in developing an RCR training program directed at postdocs are encouraged to peruse the remainder of this toolkit, which provides articles with advice and model programs. In addition, NPA staff are available for consultation and assistance with such programs.


[1] In recent years the Office of Research Integrity has considered requiring research staff supported on public health-related grants to undergo RCR training (see this article in Science Careers for an overview).  NIH already requires this for those supported on its training grants (see recently updated 2010 requirements, which now contain explicit instructions on the nature of the training, at

[2] Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey (2005), see data on Institutional Environment:

[3] Eastwood, S., Derish, P., Leash, E., and Ordway, S. (1996) "Ethical issues in biomedical research: Perceptions and practices of postdoctoral research fellows responding to a survey." Science and Engineering Ethics 2: 89-114

[4] c.f.Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey (2005) and Tarnow, E. (1999) "The Authorship List in Science: Junior Physicists' Perceptions of Who Appears and Why." Science and Engineering Ethics 5: 73-88

[5] Martinson, B.C., Anderson, M.S., and de Vries, R. (2005) "Scientists Behaving Badly." Nature, 435, 737-738

[6] Diverging somewhat from the integrity community’s definition of research misconduct as fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, Martinson et al. include a broader definition of misconduct which includes “behaviour [that], if discovered, would get a scientist in trouble at the institutional or federal level.”

[7] Rhoades, L. J. (2004) ORI Closed Investigations into Misconduct Allegations Involving Research Supported by the Public Health Service: 1994-2003

[8][10] Board on Health Sciences Policy and Institute of Medicine (2002) Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct. Washington, DC: National Academies Press

[9] 9 Core Areas: Data Acquisition, Management, Sharing and Ownership; Conflict of Interest and Commitment; Human Subjects; Animal Welfare; Research Misconduct; Publication Practices and Responsible Authorship; Mentor/Trainee Responsibilities; Peer Review; and Collaborative Science



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