Research Ethics First, Accolades Later

Photo by Dan Mason

Photo by Dan Mason

Most of us became scientists because we are curious about the world around us,and want to delve deeply into how things work. My wish for the scientific enterprise is that scientists continue to report their research findings as objectively as possible. However, in today’s research climate, dominated by hypercompetition, research ethics can take a back seat to ambition. Research today has largely become somewhat of a “gold rush,” instead of being the “thirst for knowledge” it may have been initially. This type of climate can lead to ethical issues that we must all be aware of, and must act on promptly, to maintain the integrity of the scientific enterprise.

When considering research ethics, our minds may wander toward Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) programs implemented around the country, including by the NIH. David Resnik, a bioethicist and the National Institute of Environmental Health Science Institutional Review Board Chair, points out how science has become ethically corrupt. He highlights several principles, which many government agencies and societies address in their research ethics codes and policies. When thinking of these codes and policies, research ethics may seem uninteresting and perhaps even unimportant, a mere “blurb” that we must write, or a hurdle set by the NIH that we must cross in order to submit our NIH grants.

For most of us, ethics training may be an academic requirement (or an NIH requirement), the importance of which today’s graduate students and postdocs may not realize. We may have the tendency to treat ethics in science as less valuable than everything else we think about on a daily basis. This mentality may be due to the way the culture of science is today, where high-impact publications are most valued. In addition, overwhelming demands placed on PIs may leave little time for them to consistently check the work of each and every graduate student and postdoc in their lab. This creates a research culture dependent on trust, in which the PIs rely on their trainees to produce, report, and publish honest data. However, the pressure to publish in high-impact factor journals may lead otherwise honest scientists to falsify data. Strong ethics should be held above all these pressures, and the idea that we should let the science guide us must always be action taken. Research ethics training in universities thus needs to be improved in order for tomorrow’s young scientists to realize the importance of these ethical principles. These principles may be forgotten or dismissed by solely focusing on getting a high-impact-factor publication at all costs.

Research ethics is an integral part of what we do as scientists, and should be at the core of our practice, as opposed to an afterthought. This is because what we do on a daily basis in our research practice is not just for us. Being ethical in research affects our reputation and scientific credibility, but also critically impacts both the current and future state of the scientific enterprise. If we have a deep sense of how critical research ethics is for the future of science, and if our work is based on honest results, then and only then can and should the accolades follow. Here I provide some ethical research practices to consider:

1) Keep detailed and complete laboratory notes. This practice is critical to ensuring the continuity of our field of study, and therefore is a great responsibility. Promoting easy storage, organization, and sharing of data with both current and future lab members may be achieved by utilizing tools for maintaining electronic laboratory notebooks. Examples of such platforms include Evernote, Onenote, LabArchives, and others.

2) Produce reproducible results. Performing our research in an ethical manner will help with ensuring that others can reproduce our results. Having lab members or scientists from other labs reproduce critical experiments before submitting a manuscript for publication may help with maintaining the reproducibility of scientific findings at large. Examining the reproducibility of already published data is also an important practice to ensure ethically sound and scientifically accurate data. These types of practices could ease the reproducibility ‘crisis’, manifested by the fact that a high percentage of scientists in various fields (including biology) failed to reproduce either their own or someone else’s results. ASCB’s Reproducibility Task Force and the Preclinical Reproducibility and Robustness channel launched by F1000Research are two platforms discussing these issues and the potential solutions for improving scientific reproducibility.

3) Perform correct statistical analyses. This practice is crucial for the interpretation of results by both the scientists generating them and the scientific community at large. However, knowing which statistical test to perform in a given situation is not trivial even for experienced scientists. While statistically significant data may be more readily published, researchers should not simply choose the statistical test that gives statistical significance to their desired result. This practice, although highly unethical, may be a common mistake among scientists, perhaps due to lack of proper statistical training, or due to pressures of publishing a particular finding. The American Statistical Association urges scientists to keep in mind that p-values are not a substitute for scientific reasoning, and scientists should critically evaluate biologically important data that do not reach statistical significance as defined by the p-value.

4) Report true research findings. As scientists, we should report the truth and not manipulate the data, which could bias our results in desired directions even without malicious intent. As such, one simple, lower-impact-factor publication with 100% accurate data is more valuable to a field of study than a high-impact factor publication with 99% accurate data. This is because even 1% of falsified data may lead to publication retractions and may drive entire generations of scientists down the wrong scientific path.

5) Maintain a sense of duty for future generations of scientists. As scientists, we must realize how much we rely on the results of others to build our own research ideas and projects. Maintaining this perspective can provide motivation and encouragement to guard the objectivity of our work and leave a solid foundation of new knowledge for the work of those who follow. We must thus strive to maintain and protect the scientific enterprise as an ethical place for future generations of scientists to pursue the true answers to their own questions.

In closing, young scientists today should consider how their approach to research can affect both the current and future state of science. We must perform our research in the utmost ethical manner, which will benefit not only ourselves and those around us, but also future generations of scientists. We must therefore exercise our responsibility to ensure the sustainability of an ethical scientific enterprise.


About the Author:

Adriana Bankston is a Principal Legislative Analyst in the University of California (UC) Office of Federal Governmental Relations, where she serves as an advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration, and federal agencies. Prior to this position, Adriana was a Policy & Advocacy Fellow at The Society for Neuroscience (SfN), where she provided staff support for special and ongoing projects, including SfN’s annual lobby event and the society’s annual meeting. In addition to working at UC, Adriana also serves as Vice-President of Future of Research, and is Chief Outreach Officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. Adriana obtained her PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology from Emory University and a Bachelor’s in Biological Sciences from Clemson University.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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