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Ethics in Research: Share your views April 15, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
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In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics in physics and astronomy. While in astronomy we don’t have to navigate the perilous minefield of research on people or animals, proper scientific conduct is still considered to be an essential requirement for a career in astronomy. But what defines “proper scientific conduct”, or its counterpart, the dreaded “misconduct”, and who writes those definitions? Plagiarism is the one form of misconduct students are taught from undergraduate level to avoid at all cost. How far does the definition of plagiarism actually stretch, and why? And does that make sense? Moreover, what is the punishment, and who should it be administered by?While these issues are often presented in very black and white terms, once you dig below the surface they are really pretty murky.

Here is a poll that I’m very interested to see the answers to. I’m assuming that no lives are at stake in any of these situations, no pharmaceutical companies standing to gain billions of dollars. I’ll write up what I find in the next few days!

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1. Tim J - April 16, 2009

This is very interesting but I decided not to vote since I’m not involved in scientific research—I’m someone who did a science degree, thoroughly enjoyed lab work and was rather meticulous about how I recorded the results and so on, but didn’t continue up the scientific ladder.

So with my maybe idealistic view on it, what I see in your examples is a continuum with sloppiness at one end and misconduct at the other. But as to where one draws the boundary between the two, I can’t say.

For example, when in the publishing process was the known error discovered? How serious is the error? Would it affect any of the conclusions of the paper, or interpretation of the results by someone reading the paper? Is it an error in the data, or in referring to the conclusions or another paper, or in a crucial equation used in the analysis?

Thinking about it from an ethics point of view, the issue in defining misconduct seems to me to be the magnitude of harm a particular action would typically cause, and there’s more than one kind of harm: for example harm to the discipline (misleading results, or the spreading of damaging ways of working), harm to individuals (someone not getting credit for their work).

One thing I learnt from a short course in ethics was that simple answers on moral questions are almost always wrong, so I’ll be interested to see what people say on this.

2. Sarah - April 16, 2009

For someone not involved in science research you certainly seem to understand the issues at hand. These are exactly the kinds of questions I’ve been pondering. I actually wanted to have an extra question “Are you involved in science research? Y/N” as it would be really interesting to see how people’s perceptions differ depending on whether they’re scientists themselves or not. But that would have required a more sophisticated survey thingy…. Anyway I’ll write something more substantial over the weekend!

3. Tim J - April 16, 2009

Well I try to keep up with what’s going on in the bits of science that interest me 😉

my instinct was to tick all the boxes, since they’re all damaging in some way, but then I thought “Hang on, misconduct is effectively a legal category really, so the fact that something is wrong might not put it in the category”—that’s where I felt hampered by not being an insider.

It seems to me that the different kinds of harm (to an individual, to the results, or to the discipline or an institution) lead to different priorities, so that might be where dilemmas arise.

I think the most important question for me is “Can I trust this piece of research?”, meaning “Is it represented as accurately as possible?”. Nowadays I’m usually reading someone’s press release at sciencedaily,com, but it’s still the same issue: here’s someone’s result—how much weight do I put on it? If someone’s name has been left off the paper that harms them, but if a crucial piece of information is misrepresented then that harms everyone who is misled by it.


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