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Ethics in Research (Part I)

Looking to lose an hour (or three) of your life? I highly recommend performing a quick search on your favorite search engine (shoutout to DuckDuckGo) for the word “ethics”.

Okay, so I perhaps I did enjoy that hour (or three). My point isn’t that it’s a waste of time, but rather that the mere mention of ethics leads to a dizzying array of content. You’ll find news articles, blog posts, heck, even entire forums (you know, those things that existed before reddit) dedicated to the topic. It doesn’t take much reading to understand why — to a point, ethics are incredibly subjective. My ethical dilemma may be your no-brainer decision, but your ethical action may be completely reprehensible in my eyes.

Before we get any deeper, let’s take a step back. What are ethics? Why do they matter? Only then can we discuss the real purpose of this post: in the context of research and academia, what does an example of unethical behavior look like, and how can we (as academics) encourage ethical behavior?

A quick definition

I like starting with dictionaries when defining something. Their editors generally put a great deal of effort into succinctly describing a complex topic. Merriam-Webster, thankfully, does not disappoint. Ethics, they write, are “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”

Individuals far smarter than I have spent decades diving into that definition and all it entails; I won’t even begin to claim that I can do as good a job as they have. But I will restate that definition as I understand it in the context of academia. Ethics, to me, is the understanding that we as researchers and teachers do not exist within a bubble. Our actions and decisions impact ourselves, our colleagues, our fields, and the greater public. Because of that, we have a duty and an obligation to accurately, precisely, and clearly report and disseminate our work, as failure to do so could (eventually or immediately) result in irreparable harm.

Indulge me for a moment as I dive into that just a bit further with an example. Please note that most of what follows is geared toward STEM research (not because I don’t love the arts, but because I have so little knowledge of the work conducted in them).

Ethics in Research

All forms of scholarly work, from the most abstract of art pieces to the most technical of reports, seek to answer a question. I would argue that the mere act of answering a question does not raise any ethical concerns; but how one seeks to answer the question is another story.

Let’s look at an example from the Office of Research Integrity within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). This office specifically oversees research integrity efforts for more-or-less all of the HHS outside of the Food and Drug Administration.

In 2017, a (former) graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was investigating the mechanism by which amphotericin kills human cells. He submitted a paper for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And then, prior to peer review, he was forced to withdraw the paper after an investigation determine that he “engaged in research misconduct by intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causing false data to be recorded, falsifying and/or fabricating data and related images by alteration and/or reuse and/or relabeling of experimental data, and reporting falsified and/or fabricated data in one (1) manuscript subsequently submitted for publication.”

First, let’s recognize that the issue is not his hypothesis — for all I know, he may be right-on-the-money — or even his answer. No, instead the ORI takes issue with the way in which he sought to answer his research question. They don’t mention his actual claim even once — the issues they call him out on (stripped down to the bare essentials) include:

  • Fabricating results
  • Falsifying data
  • Falsely claiming to have reproduced an experiment
  • (Again) modifying results to make false claims

Why this focus on the methods he took as opposed to the actual answer? I can see two major reasons:

  1. First, any claim in a (scientific) academic work is only as good as the data that backs it up. You can claim the sun revolves around the earth, but unless you’ve got the data to back it up, your claim isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Thus, the most important part of any work is the data, and if you’ve tainted the data, anything you — and subsequent researchers using your data — claim is worthless.
  2. Second, research is, by definition, experimental. Nothing is set in stone; an experiment run on Monday may give vastly different results than an experiment run on Tuesday. Thus, the second most important part of any research is the methodology that underpins the work. Other researchers will seek to use your methods both to replicate your own work as well as to judge their work. If you do not accurately and precisely record the steps you took while collecting data, you endanger not only your own work, but also the work of all those who follow in your footsteps.

Why It Matters

We all get negative results. Or, in less rosy terms: the experiment fails miserably, or the critics flat-out reject your latest installation, and it’s back to the drawing board. Here’s the secret: that’s okay. Research is messy and doesn’t always go as planned. In three-and-a-half years of graduate school so far, I can only think of a few experimental results that directly followed my hypotheses. And I say from experience that it’s hard — it’s damn hard — to walk into your advisor’s office and have to say, “I gave it my best, but the numbers still didn’t pan out.” That’s okay. If you’re like me and spent most of your high school years as a perfectionist, it’s a hard lesson to learn and an even harder pill to swallow. It’s okay.

The moment you stop accepting that, you find yourself in danger of ending up like Mr. Endo did — falsifying data and fabricating results, making terrible unethical decisions that will inevitably be brought to light.

Follow-Up (a.k.a., why is this labeled “Part I”)

As much as I appreciate the work that the ORI does, it doesn’t have much impact on my field (computer engineering). Thus, I’m going to try and do a follow-up post where I specifically examine a case of ethical dishonesty in that area, as well as the codes of conduct associated with the field. Keep an eye out for that to follow in the next few weeks! -AJC

Published inGRAD 5104

One Comment

  1. Devin Devin

    I really do love the comment of the act of one seeking to answer a research question is mainly put into question when conducting research. Looking into one’s process and how to best find research can ultimately help avoid research misconduct. If one is falsifying information, clearly their original process of attaining the information contained some kind of problem. By analyzing the process can help shed further light on this issue.

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