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Inadequate Ethics Training Leaves Young Scientists Unprepared for “Ethical Emergencies”

Difficult ethical issues can present significant challenges to graduate students and early-career scientists, but few receive adequate training and guidance in dealing with these problems, agreed a panel of experts at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) 2012 in Dublin. Formal training in ethics was unknown in science before 1990, when it became a requirement in the United States, said Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan, who is a consultant to the Federal Office of Research Integrity. In recent years, he continued, interest has increased in other countries as well. Concepts of ethics and responsible research vary among countries and disciplines, however, the speakers agreed, and there is no uniformity in the content of training even within countries. And, although various initiatives are underway in a variety of nations, nowhere is training sufficient to the needs of young researchers, the panelists said.

The competitive pressures that young scientists face today are much more severe than in the past and can make ethical problems more acute, said Maria Leptin of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in Germany and the Initiative for Science in Europe. Today’s intense competition greatly increases incentive to produce the maximum number of publications and to have one’s name on as many papers as possible. This in turn produces temptation to engage in a number of questionable practices, such as “beautifying” data and developing biased research designs in order to produce desirable results, she said. The attitude that “everyone does it” can seriously threaten the integrity of research, she added.

Not uncommonly, young researchers can face ethical “emergencies” with potentially long-lasting ramifications for their career, Steneck said. He cited as one example a scientist moving to a first faculty position who was asked by the department chairman to request as part of the start-up package a piece of equipment the young scientist would not really use and could not justify in future funding requests. The new hire presented an excellent opportunity to obtain it, the chairman believed. How the young researcher navigated this very tricky situation could reverberate for many years, Steneck said, and an ethical framework widely accepted within institutions and disciplines would have aided the researcher in resolving such questions.

Zaza Nadja Lee Hansen of Deloitte Consulting in Denmark recounted her experience as a doctoral candidate, when she initially thought that ethics only concerned narrow issues such as plagiarism. She eventually came to understand that it more broadly entails “learning how to interact in the research community.” The dependence of the young scientist on the Ph.D. supervisor, especially in today’s poor job situation, makes it very difficult to resist abuses by superiors, she said, citing one professor who asked a graduate student to paint his house.  Not wishing to alienate the powerful man, the student complied. Although universities may have grievance procedures designed to protect students, making use of them may seriously damage the relationship with superiors, and thus the student’s career prospects. Many are therefore loath to make use of these so-called protections, she noted.

Developing proper training methods is difficult, complicated, and expensive, Steneck said, and little is known about which instructional methods actually work. Online instruction, though popular and relatively inexpensive, is not adequate, he said. Face-to-face instruction, however, is much more costly and depends on senior faculty members, many of whom themselves lack training in ethics or a sense that it is important, Steneck added. The fact that conceptions of ethics differ among countries can ensnare scientists who are increasingly mobile, added Steneck, who worked on the international ethical code worked out in Singapore in 2010. This is far from universally recognized or practiced, he noted.

Though unanimous that adequate ethics training is essential to equipe young scientists for embarking on their careers, the panelists did not offer any simple or clear-cut way that they could obtain it or that institutions and professors could provide it. Also needed, the panelists heartily agreed, is much more work on solving this serious lack in the education offered to young scientists.