Ethics 101: A Course About the Pitfalls
October 21, 2003
By GINA KOLATA
RICHMOND, Va. - To the uninitiated, ethics in science can
sound as straightforward as the West Point honor code: a
cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.
Just substitute "scientist" for "cadet," and that should be
But the 50 or so graduate students taking Dr. Francis L.
Macrina's ethics course at Virginia Commonwealth University
are getting quite a different view of research ethics, one
that asks troubling questions about professional
relationships and how to draw moral lines in the sand if
their own careers are at stake.
It is a view that reflects a growing realization among
researchers that the real ethics issues in science are not
so much the scandals that rock the field periodically -
charges of outright fabrications, invented data, theft of
another's research. Instead, they say, they worry about
more insidious problems that can corrupt science from
within and push promising researchers who are uninformed
about the rules out the door.
And so, increasingly, scientists, like Dr. Macrina, who is
a microbiologist, are formally teaching students the
manners and mores of research today.
His syllabus reflects the issues, which include tricky
questions of data manipulation and conflicts of interest.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the subject was the delicate
relationship between graduate students and the professors
who act as their mentors. What about the mentor who
encourages students to compete with one another? Or one who
insists on being the lead author on a published article
that was based on a student's ideas and a student's work?
Every year, scientists say, more is at risk. With
increasing corporate funding, there are questions of who
owns data and what constitutes a conflict of interest. With
data sharing on the Internet, there are questions of what
is being revealed, and to whom, prior to publication. With
larger and larger collaborations, there are questions of
who is an author.
"This is a new discipline," said Dr. Michael Kalichman, who
teaches a similar course at the University of California at
San Diego. "All of us are in many ways floundering. What
should we be teaching about, and how should we teach it so
it is effective?"
The scientists say that there is a reason why they, not
professional ethicists, are doing the teaching.
"We may not know as much as we would like to about ethics,
but by and large people who are ethicists are not going to
know much about the practical issues of doing science,"
said Dr. Michael Zigmond, a neurology researcher at the
University of Pittsburgh. "They may end up providing advice
that will not work, and they may have a hard time relating
to our students. They are coming from a different place."
He and other scientists said they were largely self-taught
in scientific ethics, by necessity. "The truth is that
somebody like me, who runs a lab, we deal with ethical
issues several times a day," Dr. Zigmond said. And they
have watched graduate students falter. "Usually, these kids
are good at evaluating research questions," Dr. Zigmond
said. "But when they step outside their field into ethics,
it's as though they think their capacity to logically
analyze a situation is suspended."
It is a discipline born, in large part, from a federal
mandate. In 1989, the National Institutes of Health began
requiring that graduate students supported by its grants
have training in the responsible conduct of research. No
money was provided for such training, and none is provided
now, and many schools took care of it with half-day
seminars or Web sites. But more and more, universities are
instituting real courses, like the one Dr. Macrina teaches,
and requiring students to take them.
There are no national data on the number of courses being
offered, but scientists, like Dr. Zigmond, who teaches a
seminar on how to teach them, and Dr. Macrina and Dr.
Kalichman, who advise universities that are setting up
courses, say their services are increasingly in demand.
At the same time, scientists have become more contentious
about ethics issues, like who has the right to be an author
on a paper. Not long ago, journals almost never heard from
angry scientists in such disputes, Dr. Macrina said. But
now, he said, editors tell him such arguments are regular
occurrences, and his own experience as a recent editor of
The Journal of the American Society for Microbiology
confirms the problem.
Students may have no idea that they are heading for such a
dispute - and this is one reason why Dr. Zigmond likes to
present students with a case history that can end up that
way. He and others teaching ethics course rely on stories
they collect from their own experiences and those of other
This case involves a woman who has just finished her Ph.D.
and has gotten a job. She is packing up her things to go,
when her adviser tells her that she can't take her lab
notebooks; they belong to the lab and, by the way, he has
already assigned another student to continue with some of
the experiments she had started.
What should she do? Go off without the notebooks, sneak in
over the weekend and copy them?
Most students think there is nothing to discuss. Some say
she should take the data; most say she should not.
She may feel she has a right to be concerned, Dr. Zigmond
says, because they are her ideas, her work. But suppose she
takes the notebooks and later wants to use some of the data
in a paper she is publishing. Does she tell her former
adviser? Does she put his name on the paper? What if she
tells him and he says she cannot use the data? Or does she
simply publish the data without her adviser's name on the
paper? "What's the ethics of that?" Dr. Zigmond asks.
"We try to encourage students to ask what could she have
done to prevent this sort of thing from happening," Dr.
Zigmond said. "Why is this news to the student, that her
adviser considers her notebooks to be the property of the
lab? We ask them how many have talked to their advisers
about who owns their data. Almost no one."
It turns out, Dr. Zigmond said, that the one question the
students fail to ask is what the university's regulations
say. "Many universities have as part of their guidelines
the right for any student who has a lab notebook to take a
copy," he said.
Both the student and her adviser were at fault, he added.
"She should have learned who the data belonged to," he
said, although students almost never think to ask. And her
adviser should have told her the regulations, although, he
concluded, "The truth is that most of us don't."
Dr. Frederick Grinnell, a professor of cell biology at the
University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, says the
real world of science is full of ambiguities that are
seldom known to outsiders.
He gives this example compiled by the Poynter Center at
Indiana University that he uses in teaching: A professor
agrees to review a manuscript that is under consideration
for publication at a journal. He has promised to keep the
paper and its contents absolutely confidential. When he
reads it, however, he realizes that his student's
experiments will never work; the paper shows that they are
futile. Does he keep mum, or does he break the
confidentiality rule and tell his student what he just
Training, or lack of it, in how to handle these tricky
situations can make or break a scientist, Dr. Zigmond said.
"We play this game: we train students to spend all their
time in the lab but we fail to disclose to them all the
other facets of the job that they need to know how to
handle," Dr. Zigmond said. "It's probably the case that a
number of people fail in their careers not because they are
not bright and not because they are not ready to work hard,
but because they don't have these skills."
Dr. Macrina's class got some practice in developing those
skills when they broke up into small groups to discuss a
few case histories. Some considered the story of a graduate
student whose prospective new boss asked him to help
fulfill the lab's wish list for equipment. The university
supplies new assistant professors with equipment they need
to set up their lab. The lab director asked this student,
whom he is about to hire, to request a few extra items that
One student, Dr. Richard McPherson, a professor of clinical
pathology, began the discussion. Although he already was a
full-fledged scientist, he was required to take the course
because he is studying for a master's degree in
"To me, this points out that you should always look at more
than one job at a time. You can just knock some out right
away," he said. "This relationship is starting out on the
wrong track. This is fraud. It sounds unethical. It might
be illegal. You start to worry, Is this the way it's going
to be? Is there another agenda with this guy?"
Daniel Lineberry, a Ph.D. student in pharmacy, saw it
differently. "I think there's a greater good. I think go
ahead and put it on there," he said. "It benefits the whole
department. The money's there. Why not spend it?"
Others said they had encountered situations when equipment
was needed unexpectedly. So maybe the equipment would be
useful to the student, eventually. Maybe it's not so
outrageous to ask for it.
Even Dr. McPherson hedged a bit. "Maybe this guy really
wants to be at that university," he said. "There are ways
to work with the devil. It all comes down to a value