Friday, July 10, 2009

Ethics in Science


Yesterday the summer students gathered in the Clark building (above) for a workshop about ethics in science. While I think many went into the 3+ hour meeting emanating what might be called less than positive vibes—or at least mild skepticism—everyone I’ve talked to came out of it feeling more conscientious about ethical issues in science and happy that we’d spent that time discussing such issues.

We talked about intellectual contribution, teamwork in a lab, authorship on scientific papers, presenting data in an accurate and transparent way, the role of the lab adviser in overseeing his/her students’ work, the responsibility of scientists to the greater community, conflicts of interest, secrecy surrounding lab techniques and results, and many other topics.

The workshop focused on a series of scenarios, or case studies that presented situations in which there was ethical grey-area. Often, people would have an immediate visceral reaction to each scenario—“Sandra shouldn’t have gone behind her colleague’s back,” or “Bill shouldn’t have told John about his friend’s research,” etc.—but through group discussion everyone noticed nuances about each scenario that often changed initial impressions about the ethical issues involved.

For me, the most interesting question that arose was about authorship on papers and what it means to make a “significant intellectual contribution” on a piece of scholarship.

Science today is rooted in cooperation. Interdisciplinary teams are able to answer more complex questions more thoroughly and accurately. But the involvement of more and more people on a research paper can raise serious issues about who contributes what and how everyone should get credit where credit is due.

Issues highlighted at the workshop spurred further discussion between students later in the day that will hopefully continue throughout the rest of the summer.


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