Some types of misconduct are obvious – most researchers would agree cooking data and plagiarizing someone’s work are clear no-nos. But what about overhyping your findings? Using funding allocated to an unrelated project, if it keeps a promising young student afloat? On these so-called “gray” areas of research behavior, people aren’t so clear what to do. A few years ago, David R. Johnson at the University of Nevada Reno and Elaine Howard Ecklund at Rice University interviewed hundreds of physicists; their conclusions appeared recently in Science and Engineering Ethics (and online in 2015).
Retraction Watch: Your paper discusses “ethical ambiguity” – what does that mean? Can you provide examples of such behavior?
David R. Johnson and Elaine Howard Ecklund: Ethical ambiguity refers to circumstances where the line separating legitimate and illegitimate behavior is gray rather than black or white. In short, the same behavior can be open to different ethical interpretations based on the stakeholders who are involved and the intended or actual outcomes of the behavior. Physicists talked to us about ethically gray scenarios that included: accepting funding for military research, misuse of research funds, plagiarism, allocation of credit and authorship, cronyism, overhyping research results, and exploitation of subordinates (graduate students and postdocs).
Consider a scenario in which a scientist receives a grant for one activity and then uses a portion of that money to support a graduate student on a project unrelated to the grant. Many scientists would regard this practice as a black and white instance of unethical conduct. But some scientists we interviewed view this an ethically gray scenario, indicating that the use of funds for reasons other than specified in a grant is justifiable if it means supporting the careers of their students or keeping their lab afloat. In these and other circumstances, scientists cope with ambiguity through decisions that emphasize being good over the “right” way of doing things.
RW: You found 48 physicists who answered “yes” to this question: ‘‘Do you find yourself confronting any ethically gray areas in your own research, where you’re not sure what’s the responsible thing to do?’’ Did that surprise you?
DJ and EE: What surprised us most in the beginning stages of this research was how frequently some scientists’ conceptions of responsibility in science was limited to comments like “don’t make stuff up” and “be honest.” In many respects, this reflects the tendency in research on scientists and policies that treat misconduct in science as a black and white issue. Having interviewed hundreds of scientists in our broader research, we expected more nuance. But as we continued, a narrative about ethically-ambiguous scenarios became more apparent and at that point we added the interview question about ethical gray areas. The forty-eight instances we report reflect affirmative responses to the new question or incidents in which respondents brought it up without being prompted (before the question was added).
RW: Your subsequent questions focused on how people behave when faced with these ethical ambiguities. What did you find?
DJ and EE: We found that scientists select what they believe to be an appropriate course of action and rationalize it using one of three themes: altruism, consequences, and preservation of the status quo. To take the example of a scientist misusing funds to send a student to a conference very distantly related to the original project. The underlying justification may be altruistic in that it promotes the career of another scientist. Another practice is to allow what one believes to be unethical behavior to go uncontested because the outcomes are viewed as inconsequential. For example, we interviewed one scientist who described how he did not take any corrective action when a foreign student visiting his lab “stole” an idea, because he viewed it as an isolated incident that did not have consequences for his own graduate student (who had not come up with the idea, so wouldn’t have likely played a major role in developing it). Other scientists emphasized that levels of competition are so high in science that it is hard to separate competitive behavior from unethical behavior. A number of scientists, for example, spoke of the regularity with which good ideas are taken from other scientists’ proposals as an ethical gray area. Many would not view this as an appropriate action, but some might justify saying that competition is the status quo in science.
RW: Were you surprised to find similar narratives from all 48 scientists who encountered “gray” areas, whether or not they were based in the US or UK, at elite or non-elite institutions and positions?
DJ and EE: There is surprising similarity in scientists’ narratives at elite and non-elite universities and between scientists in the US and UK. One of the key differences in elite and non-elite universities is the level of resources for scientific research. There is a lot of scholarship suggesting that one might find a higher incidence of misconduct at universities characterized by limited resources for research because it can be more challenging to succeed through traditional means with fewer resources. So you might expect specific types of ethically ambiguous issues in physics departments at a regional state university when, for example, compared to a department at a top-tier research university. One might also expect UK and US scientists’ to have different experiences due to differences in funding structures or culturally specific practices. We were indeed surprised at the similarities, taking them as a sign of the pervasiveness of ethical ambiguity.
RW: You conclude by suggesting that ethical training also include help for how to deal with these “gray” areas of behavior. What might that training look like?
DJ and EE: The first step is to emphasize that the ethical questions that scientists will encounter will likely be unrelated to black and white issues like fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Scientists need ethical training, but courses, discussions, and seminars on ethics in science should spend more time addressing the issues scientists are most likely to encounter. For example, scientists encounter difficult scenarios related to questions like “what merits authorship?” or “what separates intensive demands of a graduate student from overwork and abuse?” The second step is to make clear that scientists will encounter ambiguous scenarios where the appropriate action is unclear. Third, training should emphasize ethical frameworks such as virtue ethics that acknowledge ambiguity. Virtue ethics recognizes that ethical decision-making requires consideration of circumstances, situational factors, and one’s motivations and reasons for choosing an action, not just the action itself. It poses the question, “what is the ethically good action a practically wise person would take in this circumstance?” When possible, consulting with senior and trusted colleagues to think through such circumstances is always a valuable practice.
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