National Academies Press: OpenBook

On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition (2009)

Chapter: Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research

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Suggested Citation:"Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2009. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12192.
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Suggested Citation:"Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2009. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12192.
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Page 2
Suggested Citation:"Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research." National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. 2009. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/12192.
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Page 3

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Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research Climatologist Inez Fung’s appreciation for the beauty of science brought her to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she received her doctoral degree in meteorology. “I used to think that clouds were just clouds,” she says. “I never dreamed you could write equations to explain them—and I loved it.” The rich satisfaction of understanding nature is one of the forces that keeps researchers rooted to their laboratory benches, climbing through the undergrowth of a sweltering jungle, or following the threads of a difficult theoretical problem. Observing or explaining something that no one has ever observed or explained before is a personal triumph that earns and deserves individual recognition. It also is a collective achievement, for in learning something new the discoverer both draws on and contributes to the body of knowledge held in common by all researchers. Scientific research offers many satisfactions besides the exhilara- tion of discovery. Researchers seek to answer some of the most fun- damental questions that humans can ask about nature. Their work can have a direct and immediate impact on the lives of people throughout the world. They are members of a community characterized by curi- osity, cooperation, and intellectual rigor. However, the rewards of science are not easily achieved. At the frontiers of research, new knowledge is elusive and hard won. Researchers often are subject to great personal and professional pressures. They must make difficult decisions about how to design investigations, how to present their results, and how to interact with colleagues. Failure to make the right decisions can waste time and resources, slow the advancement of knowledge, and even undermine professional and personal trust. Skelton, R. Forecast Earth: The Story of Climate Scientist Inez Fung. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2005. 

 On Being a S c i e n t i s t Over many centuries, researchers have developed professional standards designed to enhance the progress of science and to avoid or minimize the difficulties of research. Though these standards are rarely expressed in formal codes, they nevertheless establish widely accepted ways of doing research and interacting with others. Re- searchers expect that their colleagues will adhere to and promote these standards. Those who violate these standards will lose the respect of their peers and may even destroy their careers. Researchers have three sets of obligations that motivate their adherence to professional standards. First, researchers have an obligation to honor the trust that their colleagues place in them. Science is a cumulative en- terprise in which new research builds on previous results. If research results are inaccurate, other researchers will waste time and resources trying to replicate or extend those results. Irresponsible actions can impede an entire field of research or send it in a wrong direction, and progress in that field may slow. Imbedded in this trust is a responsibil- ity of researchers to mentor the next generation who will build their work on the current research discoveries. Second, researchers have an obligation to themselves. Irresponsible con- duct in research can make it impossible to achieve a goal, whether that goal is earning a degree, renewing a grant, achieving tenure, or maintaining a reputation as a productive and honest researcher. Adhering to professional standards builds personal integrity in a research career. Third, because scientific results greatly influence society, researchers have an obligation to act in ways that serve the public. Some scientific results directly affect the health and well-being of individuals, as in the case of clinical trials or toxicological studies. Science also is used by policy makers and voters to make informed decisions on such pressing issues as climate change, stem cell research, and the mitigation of natural hazards. Taxpayer dollars fund the grants that support much research. And even when scientific results have no immediate applications—as when research reveals new information about the universe or the

Introduction  fundamental constituents of matter—new knowledge speaks to our sense of wonder and paves the way for future advances. By considering all these obligations—toward other researchers, toward oneself, and toward the public—a researcher is more likely to make responsible choices. When beginning researchers are learning these obligations and standards of science, the advising and mentor- ing of more-experienced scientists is essential. Terminology: Values, Standards, and Practices Research is based on the same ethical values that apply in everyday life, including honesty, fairness, objectivity, openness, trustworthiness, and respect for others. A “scientific standard” refers to the application of these values in the context of research. Examples are openness in sharing research materials, fairness in reviewing grant proposals, respect for one’s colleagues and students, and honesty in reporting research results. The most serious violations of standards have come to be known as “scientific misconduct.” The U.S. government defines misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism (FFP) in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.” All research institutions that receive federal funds must have policies and procedures in place to investigate and report research misconduct, and anyone who is aware of a potential act of misconduct must follow these policies and procedures. Scientists who violate standards other than FFP are said to engage in “questionable research practices.” Scientists and their institutions should act to discourage questionable research practices (QRPs) through a broad range of formal and informal methods in the research environment. They should also accept responsibility for determining which questionable re- search practices are serious enough to warrant institutional penalties. Standards apply throughout the research enterprise, but “scientific practices” can vary among disciplines or laboratories. Understanding both the underlying standards and the differing practices in research is important to working successfully with others.

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The scientific research enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Scientists trust that the results reported by others are valid. Society trusts that the results of research reflect an honest attempt by scientists to describe the world accurately and without bias. But this trust will endure only if the scientific community devotes itself to exemplifying and transmitting the values associated with ethical scientific conduct.

On Being a Scientist was designed to supplement the informal lessons in ethics provided by research supervisors and mentors. The book describes the ethical foundations of scientific practices and some of the personal and professional issues that researchers encounter in their work. It applies to all forms of research--whether in academic, industrial, or governmental settings-and to all scientific disciplines.

This third edition of On Being a Scientist reflects developments since the publication of the original edition in 1989 and a second edition in 1995. A continuing feature of this edition is the inclusion of a number of hypothetical scenarios offering guidance in thinking about and discussing these scenarios.

On Being a Scientist is aimed primarily at graduate students and beginning researchers, but its lessons apply to all scientists at all stages of their scientific careers.

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