While most academic training includes discussion and description of academic codes of honor - including outright fraud (cheating) and plagiarism - we have begun to include instruction in research ethics as part of our formal undergraduate curriculum. Research ethics are critical to the advancement of science as they provide a framework within which scientists can share their ideas and knowledge in a fair and professional manner, and include topics such as proper (and timely) reporting of data, authorship, and professional behavior. Traditionally, students learn research ethics through informal mentoring with their research advisors. However, a more formal approach is encouraged by funding agencies, professional societies, and common sense. At IU, we are responding by incorporating discussions of ethics into our undergraduate classes, as well as organizing special ethics seminars for research students.
Our ethics program is built around a "case study" approach. Students are given scenarios involving real life situations that they are likely to encounter as undergraduates or beginning graduate students, and are asked to discuss possible resolutions of the ethical questions involved. Discussion topics include reporting data, data rights, credit for ideas, and professional behavior. The answers are not clear-cut, and students must grapple with shades of gray to help them define what the limits of ethical behavior are. Students also read and discuss the booklet "On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research," published by the National Academy of Sciences.
Scenarios for graduate students involve ethical concerns more appropriate for their career stage, including conflicts of interest, authorship, and collaboration.
Students discuss the following situations in small groups and then present the pros and cons of recommended actions. They use as a guiding principle what is best for science and the advancement of human knowledge.
In lab courses, students are trained to report and include all data. However, in real life, the situation is often more complicated. Answers aren't known in advance and often scientists are developing new techniques at the same time they are trying to measure some physical quantity. Consider the following situations:
When James was an REU student, he and his mentor, Dr. Smith, worked on a research project that is now being written up for publication. Dr. Smith has read James' first draft of the paper and has suggested that it is ready for publication after a few minor changes are made. In the meantime, James has moved on and is now a first year graduate student applying for a prestigious NSF Graduate Fellowship. James would like to list the paper as "submitted" on his application and he knows the paper will be submitted before his application will be reviewed by the Fellowship Committee.
Research proposals (for funding and telescope time) undergo "peer review" where a group of scientists evaluate the scientific merit and feasibility of the research project. Obvious conflicts of interest, such as former students/advisors and current collaborations, usually mean that you cannot participate in the review. Less obvious conflicts of interest are sometimes more difficult to evaluate.
Consider the situation where you are serving on a panel evaluating proposals for telescope time on a major international facility. Your panel consists of seven other astronomers who have some expertise in stellar astrophysics, but you are the sole panelist currently working in the field of stellar spectroscopy. How would you handle the following situations?
Colin has been allocated telescope time to obtain observations of a small sample of AGN. When he arrives at the telescope, he hears that the previous observer was also observing AGN. He notices that the observations from the previous run are still located in the top directory of the computer. Should he look at these files to make certain he doesn't duplicate data already taken? If he has not yet finalized his source list, should he add sources from the previous observer's list in order to complete his sample?
Kyle is attending his first American Astronomical Society Meeting. After a long day of standing in front of his poster, he is ready to celebrate his success at making up brilliant answers to random questions from the passing crowds. He pulls out his invitation to the party of the meeting (everyone will be there), and starts to make plans. Should Kyle retain his professional demeanor during the party? If yes, how can it be a real party? If no, what is the distinction between personal and professional behavior? Does your answer change if Kyle is a distinguished member of the Society rather than a student? Does your answer change if Kyle is female (Carla)?
Professor Mendoza and her graduate students have been working for several years on a class of new materials expect to provide good candidates for high temperature superconductivity. Preliminary results on five materials have been presented as posters and abstracts at meetings, but it is now time to write up the results for publication in a refereed journal. They are considering whether to publish their results as a series of papers, or as a single, larger paper. Two students will be completing their dissertations and looking for jobs soon and will benefit from longer publication lists and from first-author papers, but the work may have greater impact if presented as a single, long paper. On the other hand, a single, long paper might be too long and complex. In addition, Professor Mendoza will be coming up for tenure soon, and would like to have a significant paper on her resume to document the importance of her work for the Tenure Committee.
Debra is an advanced graduate student working on the origin of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. As a member of the WMAP team, she has access to an extensive set of satellite measurements. The results of her work indicate a significant anisotropy that she attributes to baryon number violation in the early universe.
Debra attends an annual APS meeting and presents an abstract and a poster on her work. At the conference, she meets Dr. Nelson, an eminent researcher in her field, and is flattered that Dr. Nelson takes an interest in her work, which she describes to him in detail. But six months later, Debra is surprised when she sees an article by Dr. Nelson in Physical Review Letters that suggests that anisotropies in the CMB may be created by baryon number violation in the early universe. Debra is surprised and disappointed, however, to find that Dr. Nelson has not cited her abstract.
Cynthia is applying to graduate school. As part of the application,
she is requested to write about her previous research experience(s)
and her research interests. After completing a first draft,
she asks a friend to read and comment. She incorporates many
of the suggested wording and grammatical changes in a revised draft,
which she then gives to her research advisor for additional comments.
She incorporates the extensive changes recommended by her advisor
and submits the statement with her application to graduate schools
and fellowships. Has Cynthia behaved ethically? Would your answer
change if the recommended changes she made were "minor"? Would
your answer change if she had added new research ideas suggested
by her friend and/or advisor?