Avoiding Misconduct in Your Scientific Research

July 20, 2001

Most beginning scientists set out to follow the highest ethical standards in their work and, in most cases, doing so is not a problem. Yet, as every experienced researcher knows, there will be times when knowing and doing the "right thing" are not as easy as they sound.

What are these ethically problematic situations where a clear right or wrong is not possible? And how can you find guidance in making the correct calls?

Robert E. McGinn, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, has taught a number of courses on technology and society and on ethical issues in science and engineering. He has generated a list of 15 "ethically problematic behaviors in science."

A few of these are easy to call: plagiarism; falsifying (e.g., "cooking" or "trimming") data obtained from a genuine experiment; fabricating experiments to "obtain" or "generate" data; deliberately misleading research competitors to improve one's chances of getting there first.

But most of the behaviors on Mr. McGinn's list fall into a gray zone, such as: hyperbole on grant requests regarding previous accomplishments or the future value of research; giving undue credit or failing to give due credit regarding the authorship of research work; failure to secure bona fide "informed consent" from research subjects; publishing one's work in L.P.U.'s (Least Publishable Units) to increase the number of one's publications; and failure to conduct a fair-minded and scrupulous review of a scientific paper for which one is a referee.

Donald Kennedy, editor in chief of Science, says some of the most problematic areas of misconduct are not the ones that make the headlines. "Faking data or fabricating experiments are in a sense easy to deal with because they are so obviously wrong," says Mr. Kennedy." But in many other areas, he says, there are huge variances in what is commonly regarded as the right thing, and this creates "zones of difficulty" not always easy to negotiate.

One such area is co-authorship. Multiple authorship of scholarly papers is now the norm in all areas of science and engineering. This raises important questions about the allocation of credit, since determining where our ideas come from is not always easy.

As Mr. Kennedy puts it, "The consequence of people working together is that ideas are in the air. To a certain extent we all 'steal' from each other, and figuring out who thought what and when, who gets credit, and in what order, is a nontrivial problem."

When it comes to authorship, different norms exist within institutions as well as among various disciplines. In some cases the laboratory director's name goes on every paper. In genetics and microbiology, for example, credit tends to be "shared," and the director of the laboratory is almost always on the list of authors even if he or she did no direct work on the project. In population biology it is the people who actually did the work, usually graduate students, whose names are the only ones on the paper.

Mr. Kennedy believes that "complementary authorships" -- in which a student's name is put on a paper as a career boost even if he or she did little or no work on it -- is a form of fraud. He calls it "a case of authorship being awarded, not earned."

For many experienced researchers there is a simple test: Can every one of the co-authors give a talk on the paper at a scientific meeting and defend it publicly in a question-and-answer session? If not, then some attribution other than co-authorship, for example, "with technical assistance of," should be used.

The other side of credit is blame. What if someone fakes the data? Are all the authors responsible? If everyone gets credit for success, should everyone take the blame for failure? It is very important that senior researchers make clear to junior colleagues what is expected in their laboratories. If these expectations are explicit in the beginning, then a lot of problems will be avoided in the future.

Another area providing plenty of ethical challenges these days is the reviewing of scholarly papers and proposals. Since reviewers see a paper before it is published, there is a risk that some of them may "appropriate" the ideas of the author. Indeed, in some areas it is now possible for authors to list people they want excluded from reviews of their submissions to journals and granting agencies.

A related matter has to do with who signs off on the reviews of papers, proposals, and grant applications. It makes sense for a professor to ask his or her graduate students and postdocs to review such material since this kind of activity can be an important part of their education. But should that be a substitute for the faculty member also reviewing the application?

These are just a few of the many problem areas that researchers are likely to encounter in their scientific practice. The first step in dealing with these problematic behaviors is to acknowledge their existence and bring them out into the open for discussion.

It is encouraging to see the increased attention paid to ethical issues in courses, books, journals discussions at professional society meetings, and on the Internet. Such attention also makes it easier for young faculty members to seek out additional advice and guidance.

One helpful approach is to identify senior scholars who share your values and who have experience in the particularly difficult and challenging gray areas. These people can be found in your department, your institution, at other colleges and universities, and in your professional societies. There are also a number of electronic mailing lists and discussion forums on the Web that can be useful. The best source for such information and for links to additional Web sites can be found at the On-Line Science Ethics Resources.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to

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