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How To Avoid Misconduct

National Academies book guides young researchers in responsible behavior

by Sophie L. Rovner
April 6, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 14

To reduce the likelihood of ethical lapses in research, the National Academies has just released a new edition of "On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research."

The book gives an overview of the professional standards of science in subjects such as mentoring, treatment of data, allocation of credit, and conflict of interest. The text is punctuated by case studies of hypothetical sticky situations and actual scientific scandals.

The new edition, which updates the 1995 version, "will be a valuable resource for graduate students and beginning researchers," according to Daniel Denecke, director of the Project for Scholarly Integrity at the Council of Graduate Schools, an organization of university deans (C&EN, March 2, page 43). "Since its first edition, the publication has become something of a gold standard in orienting graduate students and new scientists to the range of issues they will encounter in the responsible and ethical conduct of research. It is particularly important for conveying that these concerns are not peripheral but are in fact integral to the profession and identity of scientists."

The prior edition still contains a lot of relevant information, says Carolyn R. Bertozzi, chair of the committee that wrote the new edition and a professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley. But the new edition incorporates new ways of disseminating science, including the Internet, and new types of science, such as stem cell research.

Students are likely to experience many of the situations described in the 82-page guide, Bertozzi says, and the appropriate behavior in those circumstances isn't always obvious. "This book is about the gray zones," she says, "like when is a data point worthy of inclusion or not, when is it okay to overlook certain spurious results, or is it ever okay? They're not right-or-wrong, yes-or-no questions."

Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn Bertozzi
Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn Bertozzi

The book acknowledges the pressures that students face. "They're worried about the impression they make on their adviser, their publication record, their ability to get a job," Bertozzi says. "All of these pressures can influence decision-making."

The book is meant to get scientists to consider "how you go about deciding what's the best course of action," Bertozzi explains. That advance preparation should then help researchers cope when ethical dilemmas arise.

Parallels of many of the concepts encompassed by the term "responsible conduct in research"—such as treating colleagues with respect, being honest about data and results, and giving credit where credit is due—are first learned outside the lab, Bertozzi says. "But I think it's good for students to receive the message that practicing your moral compass in science is just as important as it is in your personal, private life."



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