For seven years, young researchers in Malaysia have been organizing workshops on responsible research conduct. We have reached over 1,000 people at home and elsewhere, including Thailand, Switzerland and the United States.
We were inspired by a workshop organized by the US National Academy of Sciences and Academy of Sciences Malaysia in August 2013 in Kuala Lumpur. Many of us wanted this kind of training to be more widespread in our country.
To find out how we could provide this, I enlisted the help of the American Academy of Sciences in collaboration with Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam, a geneticist at Sunway University in Subang Jaya, and Chai Le-Ching, a microbiologist at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. Although some researchers in Malaysia were already familiar with human- and animal-research ethics, few had heard the phrase ‘responsible conduct of research’ (RCR) or received instruction in research integrity.
When I was a graduate student and postdoc in the USA, RCR training was based on upheavals with few practical applications. A compulsory course only called for me to read some material and answer a few questions. But to root out best practices, researchers need more knowledge than by rote. They need to believe that these practices are important, and to be able to make ethical decisions that apply to their particular situation.
Our group decided to try something different. We were all members of the Young Scientist Network – Academy of Sciences Malaysia, which was established as a platform for young scientists to voice their opinions and contribute to society. Our teammates had shown enthusiasm in the past, so we knew they would be good opening participants.
We keep our workshops energetic, engaging and immersive. We ask each participant to create an image and pass it to another participant, who adds it, to discuss collaboration and data ownership. We make a popular local drink, milk tea, to show how everyone has a role to play in spreading awareness about responsible practices.
Our workshops emphasize the benefits of responsible research to the scientific community. We talk a lot about values and social responsibilities. We highlight how practices such as data management, collaboration and malpractice avoidance are intertwined.
Attendees create and act out scenes depicting irresponsible authorship. Based on activities learned from the 2013 workshop, we established role-playing exercises to explore a landscape on influenza research that helps participants consider safety and security issues and public dissemination of results. Some act as principal investigators, others as members of the media and government. We work through ethical questions: Should you publish or not? What is the role of magazines? of government regulators?
Another case study presents a graduate student who has been advised to conduct only short-term experiments and package them into as many papers as possible – without considering whether this is the most informative method, e.g., local Expressing the ecological impact of industries or the development of native wildlife. All case studies and activities are designed to be relevant to Malaysia’s history, culture and research environment.
Characters denote standard roles in Malaysian institutions, such as senior lecturer and research officer, and we use common Malaysian names. Situations such as tensions over data sharing and authorship between junior and senior researchers also reflect common situations Malaysian researchers may face.
Participants say they find us reliable as trainers because we, like them, are setting up laboratories and starting research programs. It helps to encourage them to talk about their challenges in managing laboratories and carrying out teaching and administrative responsibilities.
Most participants hear about workshops from colleagues or receive invitations from previous attendees. I find this encouraging: it suggests that participants experience something worthwhile and become champions of responsible conduct within their sphere of influence.
To make our content more widely available, we published the Malaysian Education module on RCR in 2018 in collaboration with the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education. The module covers specific topics in RCR courses, such as conflicts of interest and mentor-trainee relationships.
Veerakumarasivam, Chai and I spent a year assembling modules with contributions from over 50 young academics from across Malaysia. We tested it with members of the Young Scientists Network and gathered their feedback. Several contributors also became RCR trainers. Right now, we are adapting this module for online learning, as large social gatherings are limited.