Jan 30, 2015
By Stacey Berg, MD, Baylor College of Medicine
What Is Research Ethics?
When we think about research ethics,we often focus on human participant protections, such as Institutional Review Board issues and informed consent. More broadly, though, research ethics describes how we should conduct ourselves as biomedical scientists, students, and teachers. We all should be familiar with certain concepts in order to manage ethical difficulties that might occur in the course of our individual work, in our relationships with our colleagues, or in our financial activities. The principles of ethical behavior in research are often called “responsible conduct of research.”
Research misconduct is usually defined as falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism, and these are among the most severe violations of research ethics. Fabrication means making up data or results. We may say, “Who would ever make up data?” but there have been a surprising number of examples. If a critical experiment cannot be completed in time for a grant deadline, or an overbearing supervisor pushes for work to be finished before a degree is granted, researchers might be tempted to project results from experiments not yet completed. Don’t succumb to this temptation!
Falsification means saying that the results are other than what they are. Again, seeing the words in black and white, we say “Who would lie about results?” But people often persuade themselves that they aren’t really doing anything so bad. Instead, they think they’ll just tidy up a figure with a little bit of photo editing, or just eliminate a few outlying points that clutter up the presentation. Show the data as it is; your fellow researchers will understand.
Plagiarism means stealing other people’s work and presenting it as your own. All science is built on the work of others, but a key element is proper attribution. You may find the perfect wording or idea in another paper you recently read, on the Internet, or in some obscure text. You can use it, but reference it appropriately.
Confidentialty and Peer Review
As your career advances, you’ll have access to confidential information, such as when you perform manuscript or grant reviews. Yes, “confidential” means that you can’t tell anyone else what you’ve read, but it also means that you yourself must act as though you haven’t seen it. This may be harder than not discussing the material, but it is critical. Similarly, you have to be aware of biases you may have about the research you’re reviewing. There may be times when you recognize that if the paper you’ve been sent is published, another researcher is going to beat you to the punch, or when you think that the research is sound, but you hate the results or implications. Any time you can’t review objectively, decline the opportunity. The entire peer review system depends on our resolve to provide unbiased judgments regarding the quality of other investigators’ work.
Financial Conflicts of Interest
Financial dealings in research can be very complicated. Successful researchers obtain grants and contracts that provide specific funding for specific activities; researchers who are experts in their field are sought after as consultants to industry and other researchers.There is nothing wrong with getting paid for your work. There is, however, a societal concern that financial interests can be a source of bias in research, and behavioral science data shows that we are all influenced by our own interests. This means we’re normal humans, not that we’re bad people.To protect against bias, many schools, funding agencies, oversight bodies, and journals require investigators to disclose financial interests in order to identify and manage potential conflictsof interest in research. If you think you might have a conflict of interest, disclose to the school, funding agency, or journal and ask their advice on management. When it doubt, disclosure is always the best option.
You will have mentors throughout your career, and you will be a mentor throughout your career. Good mentorship has a strong ethical underpinning: mentor and mentee are committing to mutual respect and adherence to the highest professional standards in their relationship. Especially for young researchers, the mentor is also likely to be a guide to understanding and overcoming ethical difficulties in research, such as how to address conflicts of interest or what to do when there are concerns about research integrity. Conversely, a bad mentor may be a source of ethical difficulties (for example, the senior researcher who applies so much pressure for “positive” results that people in the lab may be tempted to fabricate or falsify data). There are many good articles on mentoring; reviewing a few may help guide you to more fruitful relationships with mentors and mentees.
Authorship is an important metric for success in research. Sometimes we consider seeking or offering authorship in return for activities that really don’t merit it, such as enrolling participants onto a study. Conversely, we may be coauthors on a paper due to a legitimate intellectual contribution, but we only feel responsible for “our part,” not the entire publication. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors reminds us that all authors should have made a substantial contribution to the work, be part of the writing process for the paper, give approval of the final version, and be accountable if questions about the accuracy or integrity of the work arise.
What Should I Do?
My simple test for a behavior that needs further thought is this: If I wouldn’t want to see it in big capital letters on the front page of the newspaper, it’s a problem. Most of these behaviors are under our control, and if we pay attention, we can prevent ourselves from running into trouble. It is more difficult, however, to decide what to do when we notice concerning behaviors in others, especially those who outrank us. Every organization has policies concerning ethical behavior, including how to report concerns. The best guidelines for researchers are to know the policies, think ahead about where ethical difficulties might arise, make a plan, and when in doubt, seek guidance from trusted advisors.