Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Teaching about Ethics

I asked students in my research preparation class to read our module on Scientific Ethics, and started the next class by asking them their thoughts and questions about it. One student asked, "How much fraud is happening in science that we don't know about?" The simple answer, of course, is, "We don't know!"

But despite not knowing for sure, I said we can be reasonably confident that there is very little outright fraud going on. Why? I started to support that statement by comparing it to the frequency of fraud in society as whole, but I stopped myself as I remembered recent convictions of high-profile executives on Wall Street and the volume of spam email that I receive. I thought to myself that there is probably less fraud among scientists than in the general population. How could I support this wild claim?

My co-instructor jumped in and pointed out that most of the ethical questions he faces have nothing to do with fraud but are really about not being lazy. It is easier not to follow up on questions brought up by reviewers in the publishing process, for example, or to not take good notes in the lab or the field and then just fudge the data a little bit - those are the ethical issues we face everyday that affect the quality of our science. Cases of outright fraud are rare, indeed, possibly because the rewards are less tangible than the financial gains won through fraud on Wall Street.

With a room full of students embarking on their first research experience, therefore, we turned the conversation to developing scientific habits that foster ethical behaviors: taking detailed and methodical notes on procedures, acknowledging funding sources, adequately citing sources and contributions from other research group members, not being worried about having to get a particular result in order to be successful. The extreme examples they read about helped them see the importance of those little steps in their own research, and motivated them (I hope!) not to be lazy.

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