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Working together to promote ethics

by Keith Vitense, Chair, ACS Committee on Ethics
November 7, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 44

Credit: Cameraon University
Photo of Keith Vitense.
Credit: Cameraon University

By the end of this week, both the U.S. presidential election and American Chemical Society national election should be completed. I mention both elections because of the contrast in the relationship between the candidates in the separate elections.

Although I have no firsthand knowledge of the candidates for President of the U.S., it doesn’t appear that the Democratic and Republican candidates have much respect for each other. On the other hand, when visiting with both ACS president-elect candidates, I was told by both of them that if they weren’t running, they would very likely vote for the other person!

I mention this because it raises an interesting question: Is it necessary to demonize your opponent when running for office? And more on point: Is it ethical to demonize your opponent when running for office? I would submit that it is neither necessary nor ethical. And therein lies the dilemma.

Oftentimes ethics is more like beauty in that it is in the eye of the beholder.

I teach at a relatively small university in Oklahoma. One of the things that attracts me to teaching chemistry is that for the most part there are right answers and wrong answers. And in many cases, these answers are based on mathematical manipulations, for which there are right answers and wrong answers.

That is far from the case when it comes to considering ethics. Oftentimes, ethics is more like beauty in that it is in the eye of the beholder. And if that is truly the case, what role can the ACS Committee on Ethics play as we go forward?

The first and most obvious role is in providing more opportunities for education on ethics. The ethics committee was formed in 2006. That year, it held its first symposium on ethics at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of ACS (SERMACS) in Augusta, Ga. That ethics symposium has evolved into half-day ethics workshops that are now held at both national and regional meetings.

The committee continues to survey the landscape to cosponsor and/or develop symposia that reflect current “hot topics” in ethics. Symposia topics in the pipeline include publishing and authorship, patents and discovery, and nanotechnology. We welcome your input to help identify topics. We are also able to provide help in the form of subject matter experts where appropriate.

The committee is working on a publication on ethics for undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The goal of the publication is to increase the awareness of the importance of ethics as part of the practice of chemistry. The publication, which we hope to make available in both print and online, will be modeled after the Guidelines for Chemical Laboratory Safety in Academic Institutions that was developed by the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety Task Force for Safety Education Guidelines but will have a focus on ethics rather than on safety.

The committee also provides ethics guidance for authors. A document tentatively titled “Research Ethics Information Profile for Authorship” was reviewed at our last meeting. The document is intended to serve as a general guide to questions of authorship regarding the publication of research, and it is envisioned to be the first in a series of documents providing guidance in several areas concerning ethics.

Another component of the committee’s charge is to provide recognition opportunities related to ethics—specifically, acknowledging ethical behavior and also programming related to ethics. We have received permission to present a new award at the ChemLuminary Awards ceremony. This award will recognize outstanding programming related to Ethics by a local section, and it is scheduled to be presented for the first time in 2018 for programming in 2017. Please help us spread the word early enough to allow local section planning committees to consider the development and submission of programming for this new award. We are also currently moving forward with a mechanism to recognize outstanding ethical behavior—not as a competitive award but rather based on an individual’s activities.

The ethics committee is not, nor do we want to be, the only entity in ACS supporting or promoting ethics. We are a relatively young committee, and there has been much work done in the area of ethics by many other committees. For example, the Standards & Ethics Subcommittee of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs publishes ethical guidelines documents, including the Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct and the Professional Employment Guidelines.

The very nature of ethics is personal. Ultimately, we can only control our own actions. The Committee on Ethics does not adjudicate; we facilitate. We don’t judge; we educate. Our goal is to provide you with the information needed to help you make the ethical choice.

You can contact me ( or Eric Slater, our staff liaison ( with information pertaining to anything that you believe the committee should actively promote.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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