Whether they’re studying bioinformatics, history, or astrophysics, Ph.D. recipients in France will soon have to take an integrity oath on the day they successfully defend their thesis, in what seems to be the first national initiative of its kind. Few scientists, in France or elsewhere, believe the oath alone is likely to prevent misconduct. Nonetheless, some see it as a symbolic step in the right direction that might inspire change elsewhere.
“We had a long way to go” compared with some other countries, says Stéphanie Ruphy, director of the French Office for Research Integrity (OFIS), which helped draft the oath. France’s efforts to actively promote honest, trustworthy research have sped up in recent years: introducing a national charter in 2015 laying out researchers’ responsibilities, setting up OFIS in 2017, and writing procedures related to research integrity into law in 2020. Recently enacted rules, for instance, enable universities to ask for OFIS’s help naming an external panel to examine alleged misconduct cases.
The new oath is expected to become mandatory for researchers in all fields beginning their Ph.D.s or renewing their Ph.D. enrollment, starting in the fall. A draft of the oath, which had not been finalized or released as
went to press, reads in part: “I pledge, to the greatest of my ability, to continue to maintain integrity in my relationship to knowledge, to my methods and to my results.”
It will be mentioned in the charter signed by every Ph.D. candidate—as well as by their supervisor and institution—at the start of their doctorate, and will be taken when the Ph.D. is conferred. It won’t mark entry in a specific professional body, as the Hippocratic oath does for medical doctors, nor will it be legally binding. But researchers could invoke it to bolster their opposition to dubious behavior, Ruphy says. It will also add solemnity to graduation events that, in France, often take place in nondescript rooms, without gowns or fanfare.
“It’s a symbolic measure to affirm common values and what makes a good researcher,” says Sylvie Pommier, president of France Ph.D., a national network of doctoral schools. Yet Pommier, who took part in the consultation about implementing the oath, and others think it should come earlier in the Ph.D. training process to instill integrity principles from the beginning of a research career.
Hugh Desmond, a philosopher of science and ethics at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, sees the oath as a good way to “strengthen a sense of professionalism among researchers, help coordinate norms, and make them public.” It could “empower researchers that are lower in the hierarchy, and liberate more senior researchers,” who may feel trapped by vicious career incentives and demands for quantity over quality, he adds.
Boudewijn de Bruin, an ethics professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who studies oaths in professions such as accounting, is less optimistic. “I’m not against oaths in general,” but their content should be detailed and specific enough to provide actual support for ethical decisions, he says. The French text, however, is brief and generic; this kind of oath will achieve “nothing,” he says.
Josefin Sundin, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences who reported a case of
misconduct in microplastics research
, says she supports the oath but is also skeptical. “The only way to improve research integrity is to promote and reward research rigor, transparency, and reproducibility over impact factor and number of publications,” she says.
The oath alone won’t fix these deeper problems, agrees Sundin’s collaborator Dominique Roche, an ecologist and metascientist at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. But it is a “positive development,” he continues. “I hope other countries will follow France’s lead.”