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Virtual Conference Yields Mixed Results for Ethics Researchers

Philip Langlais

The first professional meeting of the 27-member National Advisory Panel on Research Integrity (NAPRI) in Washington, D.C., was canceled last August just ahead of the high winds and flooding of Hurricane Irene. But in closing one door, the storm opened another.

Finding it impossible to agree on an alternate date in 2011, the NAPRI members chose to turn to the Web and go virtual with their meeting. So far, they say, they've found a lot to like about virtual conferencing, but also some reasons why face-to-face meetings are better.

Philip Langlais, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, and Michael Kalichman, director of the Center for Ethics in Science and Technology at the University of California San Diego, cofounders of the two-year-old NAPRI, said the panel's work was off to a good start going into the 2011 meeting.

"After Irene forced the cancellation, some members said why not wait another year to reschedule, but most of us said we're so primed to do this, we don't want to wait," Langlais remembered. "We thought that we couldn't afford to lose momentum, so we went virtual."

NAPRI had received funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Office of Research Integrity (ORI), and Langlais and Kalichman agreed to produce reports on at least three topics: institutional culture relative to research ethics, best practices for research ethics education and international variances in ethical norms. "We felt it would be a disservice to those we want to serve to allow a hurricane to delay this work," Langlais said.

The panel chose to conduct its virtual conference via the National Science Foundation-funded Ethics CORE (Collaborative Online Resource Environment).

Members can login to a private online environment and participate in group "chats," post their own papers or other materials or provide links to materials. Langlais and Kalichman originally planned to allow the panel about five weeks to explore the first topic, formally titled "Research Integrity: The Role of Organizational Culture and Climate." However, it was nearly two months before the discussion of this topic was completed due to the numerous other demands and commitments of the NAPRI members. As a result of this experience, Langlais and Kalichman expect it will take a comparable length of time to complete each of the remaining two topics.

"It's clear from our work so far that group and institutional attitudes toward research integrity are important mediators of behavior in the conduct of research," Langlais said. "Everybody wants to behave in ethical ways, but if placed in an environment where there are pressures to do the wrong things, good people can misbehave."

One recommendation framed so far by the panel would encourage organizations to shift from a firewall emphasis on preventing unwanted behaviors to a more proactive emphasis on creating an environment that promotes and rewards ethical behavior. "We also have focused on leadership," Langlais said. "Leadership is critical. When there is a culture of high principles, knowledgeable and committed leadership is a major positive influence."

The exchanges via the Web provided valuable research results, theories and other resources that he can use in writing the first white paper, Langlais said. "The panel comprises a Who's Who in the field of research integrity, and our job is to tap into the group's expertise and distill with the collective wisdom and recommendations for dissemination to the larger scientific research community."

Among the members are Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Brian Martinson, senior research investigator for the HealthPartners Research Foundation in Minneapolis and the principal investigator of three projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and the ORI studying research integrity among biomedical and social scientists.

"Each NAPRI member is extremely busy," Langlais said. "Of course, that was a reason we could not reschedule our meeting anytime in the near future."

An attraction of the virtual meeting, in addition to savings of time and money, according to Kalichman, is the unhurried nature of discourse, as opposed to panel members trying to get their business done in one frenetic weekend. "An asynchronous online discussion allows any panel member to participate at any time that works for them. There is no need to coordinate schedules," he said.

"Participants also have the time to reflect on and provide thoughtful answers to comments and materials posted by other participants."

Another advantage of a virtual meeting, Kalichman said, is that all contributions are automatically archived, allowing anyone, including newcomers to the discussion, to be brought up to date on the full discussion.

The archiving, Langlais predicted, assures that the person trying to distill the discussions and posted materials will have a full and accurate written record of what transpired. On the other hand, he said, the amount of raw materials produced in a weeks-long virtual conference is far more than what would have come from a weekend meeting. "This presents a challenge for anyone who is distilling and summarizing the discussion and recommendations."

The asynchronous aspect of virtual conferencing also can be a double-edged sword, Kalichman said.

"When meeting with people in person, there is a sense of expectation and commitment that typically assures discussion of the issue at hand. However, precisely because there is no dedicated time slot for asynchronous online discussion, potential participants can fail to respond simply because there is almost always something of more urgency that must be dealt with first."

Kalichman also has detected what he calls a "loss of vigor" in the online proceedings. When professionals are meeting in person, he said, "Ideas might be debated in a back-and-forth discussion in a way that is less likely to occur with a more diffuse, electronic discussion that is not time and space limited."

Both Langlais and Kalichman said as they move on to other topics they want to redouble their efforts to assure that all panelists understand how to use the online tools of the discussion forum. They believe some panelists were not sufficiently comfortable with the tools and did not participate as much as they would have in face-to-face conferencing. On the other hand, the two researchers are mulling ways to limit the commentary and materials posted by some panelists, because the volume of the archived proceedings is too much for any of them to read.

This article was posted on: April 9, 2012

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