Ethics for the Next Generation
By Philip J. Langlais
Troubling reports about the ethics and professional conduct of university presidents, faculty members in fields as diverse as history and the sciences and biomedical researchers have been sharing space in news columns recently with accounts of the greedy misdeeds of business and political leaders. The scrutiny has begun to reveal such gross misconduct as plagiarism and the falsification and fabrication of data in the hallowed halls of academe and research laboratories. Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services reported in July that allegations of misconduct by scientific researchers in the United States hit an all-time high in 2004.
In a survey reported in the journal Nature last summer, less than 1.5 percent of the 3,247 American scientists who responded admitted to falsifying data or plagiarizing other researchers’ work, although about a third did confess to committing at least one of 10 relatively serious acts of professional misbehavior. What seems to be happening is that researchers today are less likely than in the past to describe ethical and professional misconduct as “serious,” the authors of the study suggested. In part, that is a response to the intense competition and demands they increasingly face.
The financial cost of gross misconduct in the biomedical fields has been estimated to be as high as $1 million per case, according to Nicholas H. Steneck, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a consultant for the federal Office of Research Integrity. In a recent case of fraud, Eric T. Poehlman, a former obesity researcher at the University of Vermont, used data he had fabricated to help him win almost $3 million in government financing.
Problems with responsible and professional conduct are not limited to biomedical research. In a recent survey of students and association members by the American Physical Society, 10 percent of the department chairmen who responded reported ethical violations involving students or faculty members in their departments in the last 10 years. Lapses included plagiarism, data falsification, attributing credit to inappropriate authors on publications, and failing to name appropriate ones. When junior members (those receiving their Ph.D. within the previous three years) were surveyed, the picture looked even bleaker: Of those who responded, 39 percent said that, as graduate students or postdoctoral fellows, they had observed or had personal knowledge of ethical violations.
Junior members also reported that, when they were graduate students, they had experienced pressure from their supervisors “to overlook data that did not conform to expectations,” and were treated as technicians rather than active research collaborators. Many of their comments described abuse and unethical treatment by advisers. As a result, the American Physical Society has broadened its ethics statements to include the treatment of students and subordinates.
Are such reports cause for alarm? Do they indicate a significant erosion of professional standards and ethics? Federal regulations require institutions like medical schools, research centers and universities to establish policies and procedures for reviewing, investigating and reporting allegations of scientific misconduct. In addition, professional associations play a key role in articulating ethical standards in many fields and sometimes in enforcing them. But relying on after-the-fact regulatory oversight and the promulgation of guidelines is not enough. We need to know how well or whether the members of our profession understand the standards. And for that, our graduate schools need to become more involved than they have been.
A decade ago, Mark S. Frankel, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explained in testimony before the congressionally mandated Commission on Research Integrity that the ethical codes of professional societies fall into three types: aspirational, educational and regulatory guidelines. Aspirational guidelines often lack sufficient specificity, Frankel noted, and many professional societies are reluctant to adopt and enforce regulatory guidelines because regulation is expensive, opens the group to litigation and is distasteful to many academics who don’t want to judge their colleagues.
Therefore Frankel agreed with Stephanie Bird, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who urged professional associations to adopt educational guidelines that used the following criteria to assess their effectiveness: Do students and members know that they exist? Do they know how to get them? Do they know what is in them?
Surprisingly, very little information is available to answer those questions. That is why, with money from the Council of Graduate Schools and the Office of Research Integrity, 10 pilot projects at universities, including my own, are working to establish “best practices” for educating students and faculty members in professional standards, ethics and the skills necessary to identify and make decisions about such issues as conflicts of interest, authorship, ownership and use of data, plagiarism and mentor relationships and responsibilities.
We have discovered that one of the areas we know least about in all fields is how we convey ethical standards to the graduate students who are entering our professions. Indeed, very few national studies have addressed that, although some campus surveys provide indications. A study conducted from 2001-03 at Western Michigan University found that 71 percent of full-time faculty members and department heads (from arts and sciences, business, engineering, fine arts, and health and human services) indicated that they had regularly or sometimes discussed research ethics with students. By contrast, however, only 39 percent of the graduate students indicated that. When asked if their department provided informal or other training in research ethics, nearly 80 percent said no.
A similar study conducted at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 2004 also found that, generally, faculty members believed that they and their departments played more of a role in providing training and advice on professional standards and ethics than the graduate students reported. Those findings are consistent with the American Physical Society’s 2004 report, which concluded, “It appears that norms of professional conduct assumed to be familiar and practiced by all are, in fact, not universally understood.”
At Old Dominion University, we are examining how factors like gender, ethnicity, culture and discipline affect knowledge and perceptions of ethical and scholarly standards. Our early findings suggest, for example, that male and female graduate students in various fields differ in their understanding of professional standards and ethics. When a group of a nearly equal number of men and women was asked if ethical decisions are made easily and generally agreed upon by most people, nearly 18 percent of the women and less than 10 percent of the men agreed. After attending a workshop on ethics, however, the percentage of women answering yes declined to 10.5 percent, whereas the percentage of men increased to 21.2 percent. Such findings may indicate that men and women are affected differently by training programs on ethics, although the implications require further study.
Other evidence suggests that students of different cultural backgrounds hold dissimilar definitions of misconduct and professional behavior. For example, an article in The Chronicle a few years ago reported that plagiarism is prevalent in China because the culture has had little concept of intellectual property. Other nations stress copying as a way of learning.
Those observations raise important questions regarding the content and the expected outcomes of programs intended to raise awareness of ethical and professional standards. As higher education becomes more international, as more women enter graduate study and as scholarship becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, training programs must address the issues of culture, gender and discipline.
As the 10 pilot projects financed by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Office of Research Integrity approach completion in the next few months, a number of points are becoming clear. To successfully increase the level and effectiveness of graduate school training in ethics and professional standards, faculty involvement is crucial and it will require solid data to demonstrate to faculty members that their commitment is needed. To provide such data, the council, the Office of Research Integrity and the 10 pilot projects are working toward the establishment of instruments to test students’ knowledge of ethical standards. Our goal is to produce a national database of current skills and knowledge, which will provide a base line against which to judge the success of training programs.
Higher education has a critical responsibility to focus on educating our graduate students about ethical obligations and professional standards. We cannot rely solely on professional associations or regulatory watchdogs to fulfill this critical need. Our graduate students will soon occupy key positions of leadership and authority in society: Consider that, in 2002, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, nearly 1.5 million students were enrolled in American graduate and professional programs. They will become our college professors; they will train the next generation of our college professors, elementary- and secondary-school teachers, and the administrative leaders of all levels of education. Their knowledge of professional standards and their ability to be aware of and deal with ethical issues will promote integrity in our workplace and enhance the stability of our social fabric for many generations.
Philip J. Langlais is vice provost for graduate studies and
research at Old Dominion University.
(Chronicle of Higher Education article, Jan. 13, 2006, with permission)
Acknowledgements: The ODU project cited in this article was conducted by the following members of the ODU-RCR Task Force: Susan Metosky, former research compliance officer, Office of Research; Lisa Eckenwiler, associate professor of philosophy; Laurel Garzon, associate professor of nursing; Cynthia Jones, professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences; Zhongtang Ren, doctoral graduate student in urban studies; Anusorn Singhapakdi, professor of marketing; Resit Unal, professor of engineering management; and Barbara Winstead, professor of psychology. The author also wishes to acknowledge Sylvia Papachristoforo, a graduate assistant, and Suzanne Finnerty, an administrative assistant, who contributed significantly to the administration, management and analyses of the survey and questionnaire responses.