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

Philosopher Bernard Gert has noted, "If you are doing research with your own funds and only for your own enjoyment, you may, if you wish, make things up, or change the data points a little to make things come out the way that you would like. Just as with solitaire, you might prefer to win without cheating, but sometimes you just want to win. There is nothing wrong with conducting your private research as you might play a game of solitaire as long as you don't tell anyone that you discovered something new or prove some hypothesis. It is only in making a false claim that you have done something wrong."/1

Gert is theoretically correct, but it is hard to imagine a situation in which research would be equivalent to a game of solitaire or even where it would be equivalent to a group of friends playing a board game together. Friends playing a game together can agree to revise or amend the rules among themselves without those changes counting as cheating. Basically, as long as there is agreement among the players, you can play any game you want, by any rules you choose. The importance of professional conventions is that they are the known and accepted rules that govern how researchers do their work. To make oneself an exception to the rules that all others are expected to follow is cheating.

Research is a process, using defensible methodology that is done on behalf of society, in search of knowledge that can be shared and used. Research is usually supported through public or private funds. Research matters because it is judged to be important by knowledgeable peers. Just as researchers have responsibilities to their colleagues and to the institution in which they work, researchers have responsibilities to potential and actual funders, to the audiences and publishers to whom they submit their work, and to peers.

By the end of this section, successful participants will be able to describe and resolve:

1). Ethical issues relating to proposing research for funding purposes;
2). Concerns relating to the presentation and publication of results;
3). Expectations and conflicts regarding data retention and access; and
4). Ethical issues relating to peer review.

/1Berger, E. and Gert, B. (1997). "Institutional Research." in Elliott, D. and Stern, J. (eds.). Research Ethics: A Reader. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

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Major Issues for Discussion

1). Proposing Research and Soliciting External Funding
Research is usually funded through a combination of institutional support and external grants or contracts. Grants or contracts usually provide funding for the following purposes:

1). Salaries for the Project Investigator (PI), other researchers, post-doctoral fellows, graduate assistants, as well as undergraduate assistants, technicians and clerical or administrative help but only as the time and effort of each of these participants relate to the research project itself;
2). Equipment and supplies necessary for the conduct of the research;
3). Support services such as phone, fax, postage and copying costs relating to the project;
4). Services that need to be out-sourced for successful completion of the project;
5). Travel to conferences or other research facilities necessary for successful completion of the project;
6). Presentation or publication of results; and
7). A negotiated indirect cost amount paid to the institution.

The indirect cost (IDC) usually runs between from 10% of the total direct costs to more than 100% of those costs and is negotiated between the research institution and funder. That money is channeled to the institutional office responsible for the support of research and is essential to the operation of the institution. Notice that all direct funding provided by the grant or contract is intended specifically for use in the development and completion of the funded project. There are many more expenses, sometimes referred to as operational costs, that cannot be covered through a project grant or contract. Those costs include the building and maintaining of research facilities, including utilities; security costs--particularly important for research involving hazardous substances, drugs, or animals; and support for the infrastructure that supports the research, including costs relating to required and needed institutional research staff to oversee the accounting and progress of all grants and contracts.

Grants and contracts differ, primarily, by who determines the focus of the work. Contracts are provided by governmental agencies or by business concerns that want particular questions answered. How does this new drug work in an animal model? What salvage logging model works best to stimulate new tree growth? Contracts can be offered directly to a PI, to institutions with the appropriate expertise, or can be put out for bid. Contracts are offered with the expectation that researchers will reach justifiable conclusions related to the research question posed by those offering the funds.

Some ethical issues relating to research contracts have to do with who owns or controls the intellectual property resulting from the contract:

What if the researcher's conclusions are not consistent with the company's aims?

Who controls what is published and how it is published?

Is the researcher obligated to submit results to the company or agency prior to publication or is she disallowed from publishing results at all?

These are questions that should be resolved to the researcher's satisfaction prior to acceptance of the contract.

Research grants, particularly those from federal sources such as U.S. Departments of Agriculture, of Education and of State, National Institutes of Health and other branches of the Public Health Service, National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts, are open to all researchers and advertised through periodic requests for proposals (RFP). Proposals are developed by researchers who hope to be awarded the funds. Proposals include detailed research questions or hypotheses to be explored, methodology, justification for the research and for the ability of the researcher and institution to carry out the proposed work. Unlike the contract, grant funding is awarded on a competitive basis. Funding sources have a pool of money to use to support worthwhile projects. The best of the submitted proposals get funded. The funding is awarded on the PIs ability to develop his or her own focus for the research and on his or her ability to describe and justify the work in such a way that its importance is clear to peer reviewers and to the funding agency. The grant proposal also includes a detailed budget and justification for how the requested funds will be used.

Ethical issues arise for proposing research and for reviewing research proposals. As research often builds upon earlier research, it is tempting for PI's to claim results not yet secured from earlier research to make the current proposal look more exciting. Padding of grant proposals in this way is legally and ethically prohibited. If the PI has the intention of leading readers to a false conclusion (i.e., that earlier research has produced results that are, in fact, not the case), doing so in a grant proposal counts as fabrication, a kind of research misconduct, just as it would if the data were invented for a research report. It is also research misconduct to falsify one's credentials or to plagiarize in a grant application by using another's text or work product without attribution. Grant proposals are treated by funding agencies as identical to published pieces in the respect that any intentional fabrication, falsification or plagiarism counts as research misconduct.

Ethical issues also arise in the review of grant proposals. Funding agencies seek peer review as part of their attempts to have a fair consideration of the importance and relevance of the intended work, the probability of the described work being successfully completed, and the appropriateness of the budget requested for completion of the work described. Peer reviewers should, indeed, be peers of the PI. They must have sufficient knowledge and expertise in the field of study to pass judgment on the quality of the proposed work. It is not unusual for reviewers to be acquainted with the PI or previous work of the PI. While funding agencies require disclosure of close relationships, such as mentor-trainee or recent previous collaborations and takes such close relationships into account in the assigning of reviewers and weighting of reviews, the animosity or admiration that a reviewer feels for a PI (never requested and rarely disclosed) can get in the way of providing an unbiased judgment.

The review process also requests that the reviewer do the near impossible and disregard his or her own research interests as the proposal is read. The reviewer is not allowed to use any knowledge or ideas gained from the proposal in his or her own work. This restriction extends to use of the proposal's bibliography. Nothing can be retained or used by the reviewer. Proposals are usually shredded following submission of the review to protect confidentiality.

2). Presentation and Publication
Research is undertaken and supported on the assumption that the results will add to shared knowledge in the field. To do this, results must be disseminated. Issues relating to authorship and credit are described in Section II: Individual Responsibility. Here, the focus will be on what material should be included in a disseminated report and what can, ethically and legally, be kept out.

Researchers must avoid presenting work as they hoped it would come out, rather than how it did. According to Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary society, "In the real world, you must use all your data. Dropping points you do not like or slightly modifying data should not be done....[I]f the data look poor and that is your only reason to exclude the data, you must include them. You also should be clear, accurate, and thorough in describing the experimental procedures."/1

Intentionally dropping data points that disconfirm the hypothesis counts as falsification, a type of research misconduct. Some methods for ensuring that outliers are irrelevant and not disconfirming instances include repetition of the experiment, checking the calibration of instruments or of measurements. Unexpected data points may also indicate conclusions very different from what the researcher expects. Researchers must have a reason for dropping data points that is different from and greater than the fact that they are disconfirming.

Disseminated work should include enough detailed information that the experiment could be replicated or used as the foundation for further work. It is never acceptable to include or exclude content or process with the intention of steering other researchers in the wrong direction. However, researchers also understand that data are not presented raw. They are summarized and filtered in their presentation. The intent to communicate completely and accurately is the guiding ethical principle.

Scientist/philosopher Kristin Shrader-Frechette takes the responsibility a step further: "Objectivity, accuracy, and acknowledgement of uncertainties in research work do not impose merely the negative requirement that research scientists avoid deliberate bias in their own work. Objectivity also requires that they attempt to meet a positive demand: to present results in such a way as to avoid their misuses and misapplication by others and to speak out when others appear to misuse or misinterpret them."/2

3). Data Retention and Access
If research is meant to contribute to shared knowledge, it is essential that research data and unique materials be shared. It is also in the researcher's self-interest to do so. Labs that are competitive on one project often need to cooperate on another. Good research cannot happen in a vacuum.

Data and notebooks should be kept as a regular part of the research process and available to other researchers upon request. As an example, The University of Montana policy requires researchers to retain data and all records relating to funded projects for three years after the completion of the project. While data remain intellectual products and intellectual property of the grantee institution, not the PI or the individual researcher, it is common for researchers to keep their own materials and for a duplicate set of materials to be kept in the lab where the research was completed. This way, the grantee institution retains possession, but the individual researcher also maintains his or her intellectual property and the ability to build upon his or her previous work.

4). Peer Review
Publication in a peer-review journal indicates a certain level of acceptance within the research community, but it does not indicate that the researcher got it right. Peer review indicates an acceptance of methods and an acknowledgement of the significance of the findings to the community as a whole. But, intersubjective agreement is not the same as objective "truth." MIT researchers Stephanie Bird and David Housman describe the meaning of peer-review this way: "The fact that an article is accepted following peer review simply makes it likely that the underlying assumptions that go into the analysis of data are shared by the authors of the article and the reviewers. This is not a guarantee that these assumptions are correct."/3

Reviewers for journal articles are subject to the same conflicts of interest and commitment as reviewers for grant proposals. In both cases, reviewers must find a way to divorce their own research interests from the reviewing process. Nothing learned in the review process should be used to further one's own work.

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Case Studies

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Case Study 1: NSF Proposal Review.

Case Study 2: Competition and Collaboration.

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1/Sigma Xi, (1999) . The Responsible Researcher: Paths and Pitfalls. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi., pp. 14-15.

2/Shrader-Frechette, K (1994). Ethics of Scientific Research. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, p. 55.

3/Bird, S. and Housman, D. (1997). "Conducting, Reporting, & Funding Research" in Elliott, D. and Stern, J. (eds.) Research Ethics: A Reader. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, p. 123.

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Additional Resources

Below are links that may help you understand relationships with funding sources a little better:

  • Office of Extramural Research: Peer Review Policy and Issues: "Applications for support from the NIH are evaluated initially by peer review groups composed of scientists from the extramural research community. The objective of the initial peer review is to evaluate and rate the scientific and technical merit of the proposed research or research training. The Office of Extramural Research (OER) manages the development and implementation of policies and procedures that pertain to peer review conducted in all components of the NIH."

  • International Congress on Peer Review on Biomedical Publication: "The Fourth Peer Review Congress was held September 14-16, 2001, in Barcelona, Spain. This Congress, organized by JAMA and the BMJ Publishing Group, featured three days of presentations of original research. At the Congress, 275 people out of 410 registrants were able to attend. Only four of 41 main presentations were cancelled, and 58 of 65 planned posters were given. Abstracts from the original program are available on this site."

  • University of California Policies Pertaining to Research: Links to various documents pertaining to such topics as Obtaining Extramural Funds, Research Integrity, Academic Conflicts of Interest or Commitment Related to Sponsored Research, Additional Guidelines Concerning Research Relationships with Industry, and Intellectual Property Issues Concerning Research Results.

  • Association of American Universities Research Issues: Links to articles regarding conflict of interest and misconduct.

  • Dynamic Issues in Scientific Integrity: Collaborative Research (1995): Prepared by Francis L. Macrina. "Describes the nature of different kinds of collaborations and provides guidelines for successful and productive collaborating in scientific research." Please note: This is a PDF (Adobe Acrobat) document.

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    Section Assessment and Certificate

    Make sure you have reviewed all of the materials within this section, before you attempt the assessment.

    When you have successfully completed the assessment, you will be offered an opportunity to print out a certification document for your records. You can then close the window and return to the course.

    To begin the assessment, click this link.

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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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