Ethics 101: A Course About the Pitfalls

October 21, 2003


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 it.

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 researchers.

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 learned?

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 others need.

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 biostatistics.

"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 judgment."