Course Sections
Section One:
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Section Two:
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Section Three:
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Section Four:
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Section Five:
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Section Six:
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O N L I N E   R E S E A R C H   E T H I C S   C O U R S E

Section Two: Interpersonal Responsibility
Introduction | Major Issues for Discussion | Case Study |
Footnotes | Additional Resources | Section Assessment and Certificate

The Lab of Last Resorts/1
To: New & Used Graduate Students in the Laboratory of Last Resorts
From: Director Drake
Subject: General Rules

Welcome to our laboratory. As you know, research in this laboratory is funded by grants from NIH, NSF, and other agencies. The projects so funded have specific aims and a detailed research plan stated in the grant applications. Departure from these aims and plans requires re-application for the grant funds. We would do this only if the original ideas prove early to be without merit.

Therefore, students in the laboratory are not free to pursue ideas and activities of their own design, unless these fit the aims and research plan of the project that supports them. In accepting this fact you are surrendering a significant amount of intellectual freedom. It is important that you understand what you will gain here and what you will give up. Please be certain that the mutual agreement stated below is acceptable to you.

I agree to provide, as long as grant funds are available:

1). Your tuition.
2). A stipend to live on.
3). Excellent laboratory facilities, including all necessary computers, instruments, equipment, tools, supplies, and desk space.
4). Superior research training.
5). Thesis idea and guidance.
6). A long-term commitment to your career goals.
You agree that, since the Laboratory's highest priority is continued funding, I may:
1). Set your daily work schedule.
2). Determine your research.
3). Personally present your work whenever and wherever I deem appropriate.
4). Decide what and when to publish.
5). Decide the authorship and order of names on all publications.
6). Determine your readiness for PhD qualifying, preliminary, and final examinations.
7). Approve your committee membership.
8). Have exclusive ownership of your data -- before and after you leave the laboratory.
9). Restrict your lunches to the usual banana and an occasional tuna sandwich.
This memo, while partly tongue in cheek, also clearly states the realities of graduate student life in most research labs. Students are provided the resources to complete their education and begin their careers, but they give up a great deal of autonomy. However, rather than receiving an explicit memo from "Director Drake," most entering graduate students learn the conventions and expectations of life in the lab from older students, post docs, and through their own experience. Being clear about expectations of subordinates and fair apportioning of work and credit are important ethical responsibilities of lab directors. Director "Drake" illustrates an approach to how clarity can be accomplished.

This unit will explore the responsibilities of researchers in terms of mentor/trainee relationships, publication practices and responsible authorship, and the responsibilities to collaborate within the research group. The primary role-related responsibility of researchers is to be competent in their work and motivated to produce the highest quality work possible. For purposes of this section, that primary responsibility is assumed.

By the end of this unit, successful readers will be able to:

1). Discuss the rights and responsibilities of mentors and their trainees;
2). Describe the purpose and importance of data retention and reporting, including the assigning of credit and responsibilities of authorship; and
3). Explain the tension between the need for collaboration in research and the reality of competition, and define sufficient description of methods, resource sharing, and disclosure.

/1Weil, V. and Arzbaecher, R. (1997). "Relationships in Laboratories and Research Communities." In Elliott, D. and Stern. J. (eds.), Research Ethics: A Reader. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, pp. 79-80.

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Major Issues for Discussion

1). Mentor/Trainee relationships;
2). Data retention and reporting; and
3). Tension between collaborators and competitive research.

1). Mentor/Trainee Relationships
Mentors, for this discussion, are those who are directly involved in the professional development of a research trainee./1 As suggested in the introductory memo for this section, research trainees are dependent on their lab directors for everything from money to pay the rent to approval for their thesis projects. Lab directors, on the other hand, are dependent upon their trainees to carry out their research plans, keep appropriate records, produce and leave the documentation necessary for publication and other use of the trainer's documented work and results. This extraordinary level of mutual dependence coupled with the power disparity that exists in the mentor/trainee relationship creates the potential for abuse and exploitation by both.

Some of the common ethical problems that can arise in these relationships include:

1). The mentor is too focused on his/her own research agenda to consider whether trainees are having appropriate educational experiences;
2). Research problems seem to be distributed in an unfair or arbitrary manner within the research group;
3). Ground rules are not articulated for communicating and sharing data;
4). Policies are not clear for the assignment of credit and authorship;
5). Mentor fails to follow funder, institutional or professional expectations or otherwise acts in ethically prohibited or ethically questionable ways in carrying out the work; and
6). Mentor and trainee disagree regarding the ownership of data, the timing of presentation or publication, or about the accuracy or interpretation of what is to be reported.

The ideal mentor-trainee relationship will vary because of personalities and needs of both. However, some characteristics are more likely to create healthy and profitable relationships:

1). Mentor and trainee have chosen one another because of mutual professional interest and compatibility of work styles;
2). The mentor is able to articulate expectations, is direct, and has clear and consistent boundaries in relationships with subordinates;
3). The mentor fosters an environment that includes expectation of clear and direct communication among all in the lab and that does not tolerate gossip nor talking behind others' backs;
4). The mentor invests the time needed to help trainees discover and develop their own interests. The mentor looks for opportunities to merge the trainee's ideas with the lab's research objectives;
5). The mentor practices the highest ethical standards and finds opportunities to describe to trainees how and why choices of ethical importance are made; and
6). The trainee understands the organizational structure of the lab, the department and the research institution so that individual roles are sensible and channels for expressing concerns are evident.

The essential characteristics of a good mentor-trainee relationship are communication and clarity. If the mentor is able to communicate expectations and is able to explain the reasoning behind decisions that affect trainees, problems are not likely to develop based on assumptions or hidden agendas. If the trainee is able to ask questions and articulate concerns, there is less motivation for trainees to subversively manipulate the lab or its director.

2). Data Retention and Reporting
Good science and ethics dictate a set of guidelines for research process and reporting:

1). Keep good notebooks and other documentation of on-going research;
2). Use statistics properly; use statistical analysis most appropriate to the experiment, not that most likely to provide the outcome one wishes;
3). Repeat experiments until the results are consistent; justification for dropping outlier data points or results from experiments must be other than the fact that they yield results different from what one might wish to see;
4). Accurately record and report data. Don't hide negative results; and
5). Give credit appropriately./2

But, even these guidelines become less than clear when considered beyond a surface level. For example, "It is a violation of the most fundamental aspect of the scientific research process to set forth measurements that have not, in fact, been performed (fabrication) or to ignore or change relevant data that contradict the reported findings (falsification)."/3 However, the proper conduct and reporting of research can be learned only through experience. When outliers count as artifact or as disconfirming instances is something learned through experience. The drive to use statistical analysis that will provide the most power best suited to the actual experiment leads researchers to continually rethink their statistical strategies. And, even with the motivation to be completely objective, it is unrealistic to require that published scientific opinion be nothing other than expressions of truth.

David Goodstein, Vice-Provost and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, California Institute of Technology, addresses the difference between error and mistake this way: "The distinction is not trivial because error is an important and honorable part of science: every experimental paper includes (or should include) a meticulous analysis of error...error is not to be eliminated in science. It is inherent in all measurements and needs instead to be analyzed and understood. Mistakes are different from errors, and in that distinction lacks much of the subtlety of scientific ethics."/4 Novice researchers need to learn the difference between mistakes, which are to be avoided, and errors, which are to be recognized and explained.

Authorship of materials for presentation to professional groups or for publication is linked not only to credit, but also to accountability. While conventions differ among disciplines about the order and ranking of authors and about in which situations "credit" or "thanks" should be given rather than authorship, the connection between praise and blame can provide a more universal guideline for when authorship is deserved. An individual should be included in the list of authors if he or she can be appropriately praised or blamed for a significant segment of included material; depending on the complexity of the collaboration that produced the report, authorship may indicate responsibility for a disciplinary-specific aspect rather than for the whole piece. "A general rule is that an author must have participated sufficiently in the work to take responsibility for its content and vouch for its validity."/5

3). Collaboration and Competition
At its fundamental level, scientific research and discovery is a model for collaborative effort. Each new discovery is built upon the blocks of earlier discoveries. Each researcher is dependent upon the work of researchers who have come before. Increasingly, individual research projects require skill sets and knowledge bases from a variety of different disciplines.

Yet, at an equally fundamental level, research is competitive. Researchers compete with one another for funding from a limited pool of resources; labs that are working on similar questions compete to be the first to confirm and publish particular results. Institutions and labs compete for top researchers, post-docs, and students. Certainly, within a lab, students often feel that they are in competition for projects, credit, even mentoring time and attention.

The tension between collaboration and competition in research creates automatic conflicts of commitment. A conflict of commitment, unlike a conflict of interest, is a conflict based on non-complementary duties or expectations, rather than the self-interest of financial or personal gain. The researcher is expected both to share data with other researchers and to be the first, when possible, to publish accurate results. It is clear that these two expectations cannot be equal in value. The researcher must continually choose between these, and among a multitude of other expectations, in determining how to organize his or her work.

Lab directors can create an atmosphere that eases the tension between collaboration and competition. According to Weil and Arzbaecher, "The competitive atmosphere outside the research group can be mirrored within the group. Recent research shows a connection between a competitive climate within a research group and increased likelihood that a student will observe misconduct over time. The research suggests that a highly competitive atmosphere within a research group can be linked with erosion of trust within the group."/6

Weil and Arzbaecher suggest that lab directors consider the following questions in their work to create a collaborative lab:

1). How open is information within the group and how easily shared?
2). Is credit determined by clear criteria that apply to everyone?
3). What are the expectations of reciprocity, loyalty, and collegiality?

There are a few clear guidelines that describe the boundaries of acceptable collaboration and competition and large areas where the conventions are less than clear. For example, it is never acceptable to publish false information to keep others from duplicating work, yet few journal articles include anything that would serve as an actual recipe to follow for replication purposes. It is not acceptable for a researcher to give credit to individuals for work that that person did not personally complete. How order of authorship is determined and how credit is divided among a research team are matters of convention and negotiation.

The primary tool in avoiding ethical problems among individual researchers is communication. Clarity and openness will not solve all ethical problems; it is entirely possible that someone in a powerful position will communicate his intent to act in ways that seem ethically questionable, just because he is the person with the power to make such decisions. For usual ethical considerations -- what most people confront when they are working hard to do the right thing -- being transparent about one's intent, motives, and reasons for a chosen action provide good protection against unethical action.

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Case Study

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Case Study: Dealing with Disappointment.

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1/Guston, D. (1993). Mentorship and the Research Training Experience. Responsible Science, Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Volume II. National Academy Press, pp. 50-63.

2/Adapted from Stern, J. and Elliott, D. (1997). The Ethics of Scientific Research: A Guidebook for Course Development. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, p. 21.

3/National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, (1992). Responsible Science, Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, p. 47.

4/Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, (1999). The Responsible Researcher: Paths and Pitfalls. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: Sigma Xi., p. 8.

5/National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, (1992). Responsible Science, Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, p. 52.

6/Weil, V. and Arzbaecher, R. (1997). Relationships in Laboratories and Research Communities. In Elliott, D. and Stern J. (eds.), Research Ethics: A Reader. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, p. 76.

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Additional Resources

Below are links that may help you understand the concept of individual responsibility a little better:

  • Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science: "Our mission is to provide engineers, scientists, and science and engineering students with resources for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that arise in their work, and to serve those who are promoting learning and advancing the understanding of responsible research and practice in science and engineering."

  • A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH: "The following Guide grew out of my sense that research training at NIH -- and undoubtedly elsewhere -- would benefit from a more explicit set of expectations for the predoctoral and postdoctoral research training experience. This sentiment, in turn, sprang from a movement by NIH fellows themselves seeking improved mentoring. This movement was complemented by a project of the National Academy of Sciences (See Directory of Useful Web Sites) and gained momentum from an editorial outlining my expectations for postdoctoral training at NIH."

  • Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering: "This guide-intended for faculty members, teachers, administrators, and others who advise and mentor students of science and engineering-attempts to summarize features that are common to successful mentoring relationships. Its goal is to encourage mentoring habits that are in the best interests of both parties to the relationship. While this guide is meant for mentoring students in science and engineering the majority of it is widely applicable to mentoring in any field."

  • MentorNet: "MentorNet is The E-Mentoring Network for Women in Engineering and Science. We pair women who are studying engineering or science at one of our participating colleges or universities with professional scientists and engineers working in industry, and help them form email based mentoring relationships. MentorNet is a non-profit initiative sponsored through partnerships, grants and donations."

  • Perspicacity & Paradigms Links: "Perspicacity & Paradigms is an independent journal devoted to clear insights and fresh perspectives, published in pursuit of a better world. It is our mission to provide fresh, rational, nonpartisan, insightful, principle centered and uncommonly intelligent ideas, perspectives, commentaries and analysis on a broad spectrum of timely and timeless political and social issues for the edification of concerned citizens, opinion leaders, policy makers and all who share our goal of a better world."

  • The Foundation for Individual Responsibility: "The Foundation for Individual Responsibility and Social Trust (FIRST) is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring the generation of young adults to address the major political, economic, and social issues of our time at their most basic level while taking a leadership role in finding creative and positive outcomes."

  • Individual Responsibility: From World Scripture A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts, "Responsibility is central to what it means to be human. Other creatures have life, consciousness, intelligence, and even some limited ability at language; but only human beings are responsible to choose their manner of life and hence their destiny. All the religions of the world emphasize, in one way or another, individual responsibility in matters of faith and practice."

  • Individual Responsibility in Building a Culture of Peace: "The Twentieth Century will be remembered as a century of wars. Despite opportunities such as the end of the Cold War between the US and the former USSR, human beings have moved further away from creating a world where they can live in harmony with one another and all life on Earth. Such a world is possible, but it requires active participation and cooperation from every individual to respect life and take action to create such a world. Peace begins with the individual. We must realize that, as individuals, we are not powerless and that the power of one can make a difference. As individuals we must accept the responsibility to end the scourge of war and culminate in a culture of peace. We must realize that peace is more than the absence of war. War is a drain on both human and financial resources and as history proves, is not an effective means of resolving conflict. Peace involves a process of individual and communal participation. It requires justice, equal rights and equal opportunities."

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    Section Assessment and Certificate

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  • Ethical Issues in Research | Interpersonal Responsibility | Institutional Responsibility |
    Professional Responsibility | Animals in Research | Human Participation in Research |
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