Promoting the Responsible Conduct of Research at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

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By: D.G. White and J.B. Burns

"Integrity is the essence of everything successful." – R. Buckminster Fuller

Public assurance in the integrity of the research, public service, and scholarship conducted at the University of Tennessee is paramount to the University’s objectives as a public institution of higher education and is a critical responsibility of every member of the University community. As a “campus” of the UT System, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) takes seriously its obligation to support and implement best practices in promoting research excellence and integrity.

So what is research integrity? Research integrity includes the use of honest and verifiable methods in proposing, performing, and evaluating research; reporting results with particular attention to adherence to rules, regulations, guidelines; and following commonly accepted professional codes or norms.1 Failure to endorse research integrity fundamental values will ultimately undermine the public’s confidence, trust, and support in our activities.

What actions or departures from accepted practices can damage our research enterprise? Some research behaviors are so contradictory with core science norms that they are treated very severely by institutions that administer research and the greater scientific community. These behaviors go beyond unintended mistakes and negligence as there is a goal to purposely deceive. The most serious violations and deviations have been grouped together and termed “research misconduct.” The US government (Office of Science and Technology Policy) has defined research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism (FFP) in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”

  • Fabrication is “making up data or results.”
  • Falsification is “manipulating research materials, equipment or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.”
  • Plagiarism is “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.”2

Many federal agencies have realized that addressing research misconduct involves much more than developing and enforcing rules. It also includes the development of proactive steps geared to providing information to scientists to avoid the pitfalls and consequences of research misconduct. One of the primary means of preventing research misconduct is through the development of training initiatives aimed at promoting responsible conduct of research (RCR).

What is RCR? RCR refers to federal initiatives geared to educate faculty, staff, and students, whose research is supported by certain federal funding agencies. The importance of formal RCR education was first formally recognized in the 1989 Institute of Medicine Report, “The Responsible Conduct of Research in the Health Sciences,” and has since been endorsed by numerous scientific groups and members of the global research community.

The National Institutes of Health, often considered a “gold standard,” goes further to define RCR as the practice of scientific investigation with integrity, which involves the awareness and application of established professional norms and ethical principles in the performance of all activities related to scientific research.3

RCR is increasingly viewed as an essential component of a scientist’s training, regardless of a researcher’s source of funding. Specifics of the training requirement vary among federal agencies and award types. However, RCR training is mandatory for certain participants when required by external funders, including:

  • United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA)
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)

At UTIA, our compliance officer provides guidance and support for the implementation of the RCR Institutional Plan.4 The UTIA RCR Institutional Plan was originally developed in 2014 and provides flexibility in content and delivery while addressing the varying needs of different disciplines and career stages. The UTIA RCR Institutional Plan is a living document that is assessed regularly as new best practices are identified. In fact, last year Chancellor Cross appointed a committee composed of members across UTIA (AgResearch, Extension, College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, College of Veterinary Medicine, and Compliance) to update and revise the RCR Institutional Plan. The revised RCR plan is being rolled out across UTIA, with renewed campus-wide commitment and support.

In summary, it is important that UTIA faculty, staff, and students understand the many aspects associated with the responsible conduct of research (RCR) to avoid departures from accepted ethical practices which may constitute research misconduct. Responsible conduct of research is critical for excellence, necessary for public trust, and is everyone’s responsibility to continually foster a positive research environment that promotes integrity at all levels across UTIA.


1 National Institutes of Health Office of Extramural Research

2 Office of Science and Technology Policy. (2000). Federal Policy on Research Misconduct: Notification of Final Policy. Federal Register December 6, 2000. 65(235):76260-76264.

3 NIH Update on the Requirement for Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research.

4 UTIA RCR Institutional Plan.