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Raising awareness among ACS members about ethics

by Judith N. Currano, Chair, ACS Committee on Ethics
September 29, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 39


A photo of Judith Currano.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

When I first began my job as the head of the chemistry library at the University of Pennsylvania, I knew that I would be interacting with every student in the chemistry doctoral program at least twice. I would see them during their first year when they were enrolled in my required course on chemical information. I’d see most of them again during their final year when they were preparing their dissertations and wanted to ensure that they had found absolutely every relevant piece of information available on their topics.

Many things have changed in the 20 years that I’ve been involved in chemical information, but the timing of my meetings with the students has not. I still see them in my course, and I still see them when they’re preparing to graduate. The difference is that students graduating today do not ask for comprehensive literature searches. Instead, they ask me whether they can ethically use their previously published papers in their dissertations.

When I was training for a career in chemical information, I never imagined that I would be asked this question, let alone that I would answer it 15 to 20 times per year. But researching and teaching ethics in scholarly communication has quickly become one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

At best, ethical breaches in our profession can be uncomfortable; at worst, they can be disastrous, and the issues are almost never as clear cut as we think they should be.

Since I became chair of the Committee on Ethics (ETHX) in January, I have received correspondence from several ACS members, some describing specific ethical breaches that they have experienced or witnessed, and others seeking advice on the best way to avoid such situations. It was difficult for me to respond to some of the messages because many of the correspondents were seeking specific resolutions to problems, and ETHX is not an adjudicatory body and cannot judge cases or resolve disputes.

We have done our best to respond to everyone, offering suggestions and referrals as we can, within the bounds of our charge, which is to coordinate the ethics-related activities of the society; serve as an educational resource and clearinghouse for ACS members seeking guidance on ethics issues; raise awareness of ethics issues through meeting programming and columns/editorials; review recognition opportunities for acknowledging ethical behavior; and to develop and oversee other ethics-related activities that promote the society’s standards of ethical conduct within the profession of chemistry and its related disciplines.

We can achieve a culture in which ethics permeates our every move.

The most critical piece of our charge is to raise ethics awareness, and for the past several years, members of the committee have worked tirelessly toward this goal. We have organized symposia on ethical issues in publication, collaboration, and data sharing at the past three national meetings, and we are planning a session for the spring national meeting in Orlando titled “Publish, Patent, or Perish: Ethical Communication in Chemistry.” We are also proud to announce two new online publications: a short monograph titled “The Importance of Ethical Conduct in Scientific Research,” and “Credit Where Credit Is Due: Respecting Authorship and Intellectual Property,” our first ACS Symposium Series volume, published this June and sponsored by the Division of Chemical Information.


All the resources in the world are useless unless they are accessible, so we are in the process of reorganizing and reviewing the resources on our website. We aim to make them more relevant, visible, and accessible to ACS members in all sectors of the chemical enterprise.

To help us prioritize the resources that we are collecting, we have undertaken research to determine ethics-related interests of the ACS membership. Members of ETHX presented an interactive Sci-Mix poster at the fall 2016 ACS national meeting, during which they asked visitors to anonymously contribute their ethical concerns, as well as the names of publications on ethics and resources on which they rely. The results appear in the Journal of Chemical Education (2018, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.7b00867). This fall, we will use two questions on the ACS salary survey to solicit the priorities of a broader swath of the membership.

I am sure that ETHX is not the only entity working to raise awareness of ethical issues and that many local sections have presented interesting programs with this goal in mind. We encourage all local sections to self-nominate for our ChemLuminary Award for Outstanding Local Section Programming Related to the Promotion of Ethics in Chemistry. In your self-nomination, please be sure to indicate the ways in which your activities furthered awareness of ethical issues, as well as the extent of the program’s impact.

A commitment to ethics should be the basis for every decision that we make. Working together, I know that we can achieve a culture in which ethics permeates our every move.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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