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Ethically Problematic Behaviors in Science

Message Number: 


All of us want to follow the highest ethical standards in our our roles as professors, and in most instances doing so is not be a problem. Yet, there are times, particularly in our teaching and research, when knowing and d oing the "right things" are not as simple as they sound. In such situations, it is helpful if we can share out experiences in making the "right calls" when confronted with ethically problematic situations. 

Robert E. McGinn has taught a number of courses on technology and society and on ethical issues in science and engineering at Stanford University. He has generated a list (see below) of fifteen "ethically problematic behav iors in science," The list focuses on research related conduct and as you can see, with the exception of a few items (#1, #2, #5 and #8 for example), these situations are not simple black and white matters with easily prescribed courses of action. Here is the list: 

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Ethically Problematic Behaviors in Science," 

1. falsifying (e.g., "cooking" or "trimming") data obtained from a genuine experiment; 
2. fabricating experiments to "obtain" or "generate" data; 
3. misrepresentation in funding requests (e.g., hyperbole regarding previous accomplishments or future value of research); 
4. giving undue credit or failing to give due credit to someone regarding authorship of research work; 
5. deliberately misleading research competitors to "throw them off the trail" in order to improve one's chances of "getting there first"; 
6. failure to secure bona fide "informed consent" from experimental subjects (for example the Tuskeegee experiment involving subjects with syphilis, or recent Department of Energy revelations regarding testin g of civilians with radioactive substances); 
7. failure to take steps to insure "fair play" in one's laboratory (e.g., discrimination against or sabotage of the work by one or another party or group); 
8. plagiarism; 
9. demeaning a competitor's work to boost one's own; 
10. allowing one's research findings to be used in a misleading or potentially harmful way for personal or group political or economic gain; 
11. publishing one's work in LPUs (Least Publishable Units) to increase the number of one's publications; 
12. failure to "blow the whistle" on someone whose work is known to be defective where failure to do so may endanger the public interest or put a private party at risk of incurring unjustifiable harm; 
13. failure to conduct a fair-minded and scrupulous review of a scientific paper for which one is a referee; 
14. providing a biased or facile evaluation of a proposal for research funding for which one is a reviewer, and 
15. influencing scientific research projects of one's subordinates (e.g., graduate students) in order to advance research in which one has a vested economic interest (e.g., because of owning stock in a compan y which stands to benefit from the skewed research). 

The first step in avoiding many of these behaviors is to acknowledge there existence and by so doing bring them out into the open for discussion. In discussing these matters it helps to be aware of the pressures leading so me faculty, in spite of their best intentions to the contrary, to engage in such conduct. McGinn has looked at this issue in some detail and has postulated a dozen "factors conducive to misconduct in contemporary science." They are: 

1. the institutionalization of contemporary science (with all that this implies regarding the indispensability of obtaining substantial, ongoing funding); 
2. the concept of an obsession with "success" in U.S. society, something which translates into great value being placed on obtaining desired results and which tends to devalue the importance and integrity of the process by which the results are obtained; 
3. the difficulties that stand in the way of replicating previous experiments (e.g.,difficulty of obtaining funding to replicate someone else's experiment); 
4. the time that must be spent writing and marketing proposals to obtain funding for one's laboratory or institution, resulting in less time being available for transmitting "integrity values" to one's studen ts "at the bench"; 
5. fear of being hit with a lawsuit if one blows the whistle on a colleague or superior; 
6. fear of ostracism by colleagues if one blows the whistle; 
7. the highly competitive nature of contemporary science regarding obtaining funding, being first in print, and obtaining one's own laboratory or a coveted endowed chair; 
8. the high prestige attached by institutions and departments to having colleagues who publish prolifically and the related reward system; 
9. the unprecedented degree of specialization in contemporary science (resulting in the prevalence of "a vulgar quantitative mentality" regarding publications); 
10. the huge (about 40,000) number of scientific journals extant (resulting in the publication of much work of dubious scientific value and the difficulty of detecting fraud); 
11. the lack of will and absence of an effective mechanism in science to root out fraud; and 
12. the pressure on young scientists to obtain significant funding and publish a lot to get tenure. 

Professor McGinn can be reached at: ( 


It would be great to hear from individuals who have confronted one or more of the situations described above? 

Rick Reis