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Shining a spotlight on academic integrity: A conversation with Sabuj Bhattacharyya

Bharti Dharapuram

Sabuj Bhattacharyya is the Research Ethics and Integrity Officer at the Biotechnology Research and Innovation Council-Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (BRIC-inStem), Bengaluru. In this interview, he speaks to Bharti Dharapuram, an ecologist and science writer, about the multiple facets of research ethics, the joys and challenges of teaching it, and building a more mindful research culture.

Sabuj Bhattacharyya
Sabuj Bhattacharyya  (Photo: Illustrations sourced from Pixabay.)

The Research Ethics and Integrity Office at BRIC-inStem is a dedicated office for academic integrity and one of the first of its kind in the country. Could you give us a quick overview of the office?

The Research Ethics and Integrity office, which I lead, is located at and established by BRIC-inStem. It has been envisioned as a common office for NCBS-TIFR [National Centre for Biological Sciences-Tata Institute of Fundamental Research], BRIC-inStem, and other Bangalore Life Science Cluster institutes [which currently includes the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C‑CAMP)].

While administratively they [NCBS and BRIC-inStem] are different entities, we work very closely, and the office has three primary objectives. We work on capacity building by teaching research ethics to different stakeholders. Second, we help formulate policies. For example, if there is research misconduct, we decide how to take the case forward and create a committee. The third objective is documentation. For any publication that goes out of BRIC-inStem and NCBS, all the associated raw data needs to be deposited in our Research Publication Data Archive to improve the transparency and reproducibility of the research being done. The overall aim of our office is the prevention of research misconduct, not punishment.

Tell us about your experience teaching research ethics and integrity to various stakeholders. 

Towards the capacity-building objective, we have an hour-long monthly ethics seminar for visiting students and scientists at different career stages. I also teach a two-credit course for over two and a half months for PhD students from NCBS, BRIC-inStem, TIGS, and other higher education institutes in Bengaluru. This course is mandated by University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations and has to be taught as per their prescribed format (e.g., topics, hours). The course is designed by me and senior colleagues Raj Ladher from NCBS and Dasaradhi Palakodeti from BRIC-inStem. We also have other teaching faculties, such as Sunil Laxman, who teaches philosophy of science, Ketan Thorat, who teaches human ethics, and Mohan GH, who teaches the animal ethics component of the course. We also have guest faculty from abroad who deliver lectures online and enrich the course.

Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching — even when doing the wrong thing is legal.

I use a definition of research integrity from the NIH [National Institutes of Health, USA], which says that research integrity is how you do research adhering to good scientific practices, how you report your results, and be mindful of the professional norms. Also, if you are doing this right, for whom are you doing this right? You are going to do it right for the host institute, the scientific community, and finally, the taxpayers.

I also quote Aldo Leopold [American conservationist, philosopher and writer] who said, ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching — even when doing the wrong thing is legal”.

We discuss different kinds of research misconduct, plagiarism, the peer review process, conflict of interest, and international norms in authorship. We discuss case studies pertaining to each of these issues, where we work through the various scenarios that I present to students. We also talk about different kinds of journals, including predatory journals, and the limitations of the h‑index and impact factor. We end with animal and human ethics, where we discuss how to humanely treat animals, the importance of power calculations, and how the animal ethics committee functions. In the human ethics class, my colleague talks about the importance of obtaining informed and understood consent from the participants of a study. In the research data management class, we talk about how to name files and folders and how many times one should back up their data. As an assignment, the students create their own research data management plan for their PhD.

Students do assignments summarising and discussing case studies of research misconduct, which are available through various online resources. We also use multiple kinds of games. One game, developed by Dr. Zeenath Reza Khan from the University of Wollongong, Dubai is called the Age of Integrity, which focuses on exercises related to different kinds of plagiarism. I really enjoy teaching; we have a lot of discussions in each class and that really excites me.

Often mistakes happen because they are unintentional and out of ignorance or a lack of training.

What suggestions do you have for faculty, especially early career researchers, to ensure that their labs are more mindful of research practices?

A lab could be highly productive but could have a very toxic research culture. The moment one places too much emphasis on publishing in a big” journal, the students as well as faculty become vulnerable to research misconduct. Having an open and productive research culture, where the student can come and talk to the Principal Investigator [PI] is one aspect of doing research mindfully. Also, the PIs need to set some expectations of academic integrity from their students. Often mistakes happen because they are unintentional and out of ignorance or a lack of training. A resource that I often use for faculty workshops is called the FAITH project from the European Network for Academic Integrity which uses role play-based activities to improve an understanding of the nuances of academic integrity.

There are ethical standards and certain rules for regulatory compliance, which can be different for different countries. The UGC, ICMR [Indian Council for Medical Research, Govt. of India] and DBT [Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India] have guidelines on best research practices in very detailed documents, but many researchers are unaware of them. I would ask young faculty, especially if they have shifted from outside India, to familiarise themselves with these documents and transfer this information to their students. 

I would also recommend that they ask their institutions to create a research integrity office or a regulatory compliance office because it helps the larger ecosystem.

Outside of teaching, what projects have you been involved in? Looking ahead, what aspects of your work are you most excited about?

I am working on a research project funded by the DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance, where we are designing a website based on the UGC-recommended research and publication ethics curriculum. We are building a database of useful resources for teachers in India, who often struggle to identify resource materials for teaching research ethics to undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the same grant, we reached out to various Life Science departments in India to understand the challenges they face in research integrity and regulatory compliance.

We also conducted an in-person workshop at BRIC-inStem with representation from 21 faculties from diverse career stages, subjects and backgrounds. The workshop had a talk on useful resources, a panel discussion on common challenges, conversations around regulatory compliance and biosafety, and networking opportunities.

I am going to present the results of another research project at the World Conference on Research Integrity in Greece in June 2024, which I am really excited about. In this study, we are looking at around 13,000 retraction data points in the life sciences and trying to understand what influences them. The challenge is that most funding agencies do not have research integrity and ethics as an area of funding. So, even if you want to run a particular project, you cannot apply for funds, which needs to be addressed.