Young Scientists Need to Feel a Personal Stake in Ethics

By Glenn McGee

Those of us who work in the field of bioethics dutifully teach the research-ethics course that the National Institutes of Health requires of graduate students in the biomedical sciences. After all, such training clearly is important in an era when some scientists have had to spend a great deal of time defending themselves against various charges of misconduct. But many of us were not surprised by a study recently published in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics that concluded that training in ethics has no effect on student scientists.

The study found that students perceive research-ethics courses to be unnecessary annoyances, which my colleagues and I knew. It also suggested, based on the disciplinary records of students before and after they took ethics courses, that the courses have no impact on the students' conduct, or on their perception of ethics in science.

In 1989 the N.I.H. imposed the requirement that graduate students involved in federally supported research be exposed to at least one training session on the responsible conduct of research. The move came in response to public outcries about scientific scandals involving allegations of fabrication of data, use of dangerous experimental methods on human subjects, and exaggerated claims for the results of experiments. The agency also was reacting to young scientists' complaints about laboratory directors, dissertation advisers, and others who inappropriately insisted on being listed as authors of papers simply because they were the superiors of those who actually did the research and writing.

The resulting programs, generally called Responsible Research Training, typically are organized around three good, clear rules for responsible research:

Violating one or more of these principles is the most common sin of researchers who have got into trouble in the United States in recent years. But simply requiring one or two sessions about these three rules isn't enough. A graduate student who hasn't already decided to avoid fraud or plagiarism isn't going to be persuaded to do so by a one-hour lecture on ethics.

It's too early to know how successful it was, but during academic 1995-96, I used a different approach to training graduate students in ethical behavior. I opted to avoid the "scare tactics" lecture on great frauds in scientific history. Henry Beecher, who in 1966 wrote the most important article exposing the abuse of human research subjects ("Ethics and Clinical Research," New England Journal of Medicine, June 16, 1966) was convinced that even scientists who understood the ethical standards might break them unless they felt a personal stake in the integrity of science--that is, unless they felt that unethical behavior by other scientists would reflect badly on them. I believe that the way to inculcate this sense of personal responsibility is to turn the tables, so that ethics training focuses on what the university and professors owe the student, rather than the reverse. I call this strategy the "Protege's Bill of Rights."

The first right that a student should have is the right to an experienced and judicious mentor. This faculty member should give students copies of any regulations relevant to the conduct of their research--including those governing the use of radioactive materials, infectious agents, recombinant DNA, and human or animal subjects--as well as any relevant information about patents, copyrights, and royalties. More important, the mentor should be responsible for the intellectual and professional development of students, guiding them around predictable pitfalls and alerting them to professional opportunities. Mentors must realize that they are training new scientists, not receiving cheap labor in the form of graduate and postdoctoral students.

In turn, students must choose their mentors carefully. A low-profile professor who nonetheless has a good record of training students and finding them jobs after graduation, may well be a better choice as a mentor than a world-renowned scholar who has less contact with students, or a laboratory director who is too preoccupied with research and fund raising to devote much time to teaching. And if, as students now complain is often the case, mentors ignore their responsibilities to develop their students' skills and careers, place the students in competition with one another, or ignore the students' professional concerns, students must assert their right to be treated fairly.

For their part, university administrators must push deans and faculty members to create and enforce a structured mentoring process that includes an ombudsman or other advocate to help students who the system has failed. Deans must be willing to consider sanctions against mentors who don't do their jobs, and to reward teaching and mentoring as well as scholarly productivity.

The student's second right is the right to due process. If a student makes a mistake, nobody should automatically assume that it was due to neglect or malice, without an inquiry into the situation. Equally, of course, the student should be very careful about alleging that a mentor or colleague has behaved unethically or carelessly. Many universities have written policies that define scientific misconduct. Students should feel comfortable about raising questions that might involve misconduct, without fearing that they will suffer reprisals or automatically be labeled as whistle blowers. One natural place to house the review of student or faculty complaints concerning responsible research is the university's institutional review board. Such boards can expand their scope beyond the current reviews of the ethics of federally supported research involving human subjects, to the ethics of student-faculty relationships and the myriad ethical issues that arise in the conduct of research partnerships between students and faculty members. The board should be empowered to discipline faculty members who interfere with due process and to shut down labs with repeated or serious violations. Even if these sanctions are never used, they make it clear that the first duty of the university is to responsible research and then to scientific progress.

The third right is the right to be treated with respect. Although students should expect intellectual challenges and friendly competition, they should not be subjected to hazing or harassment. In addition, students are entitled to credit for the work they do, and should not have to share that credit with faculty members who are not equally involved with the work. Although it is perfectly appropriate for students to acknowledge help from faculty members, only the researchers who actually write a paper should be considered the authors.

In evaluating a prospective mentor, students should consider how that faculty member treats students when he or she determines the authorship of publications. Deans and department chairs need to monitor publication practices and to sponsor discussions, for faculty members and students, of how authorship should be assigned for projects on which many people have worked. Further, institutional review boards should be empowered to conduct investigations into cases of questionable assignment of authorship.

It is true that students may find it difficult to exercise some of their rights, despite the fact that universities and their science faculties should bear the responsibility of providing them. The bulk of time and resources in major research universities is dedicated to scientific accomplishment, not to teaching and mentoring. However, if a commitment to scientific integrity and research ethics is to develop, it must surely begin with a generation of scientists who insist on fair and intelligent training.

Even if students have trouble exercising their rights, students who understand what the responsibilities of the university should be are better prepared to make the early, formative choices that they must make about professional standards and personal integrity. Basing ethics training for graduate students on the three rights that I have outlined also makes sense because the current emphasis on punishing bad scientists is replaced by a warning--akin to the Miranda warning for people arrested by the police--that emphasizes the rights and responsibilities that come with adult participation in the research community. While the university probably should emphasize teaching and counseling as much as research, it rarely does. The student can affect the situation by asserting the right to a judicious mentor and by avoiding graduate programs with reputations for exploiting or ignoring graduate students' need for guidance.

Student scientists can change their institutions by voting with their feet: choosing to be guided by real mentors rather than superstar scholars, insisting on ombudsman programs, and, where all else fails, choosing different programs.

John Stuart Mill wrote in his Utilitarianism that if you give people a selfish reason to do the right thing, eventually they will begin not only to do the right thing, but also to do it for the right reasons. Training student scientists in ethics may turn out to be an object lesson in utilitarianism: To teach students to respect and obey the important standards and processes in research, student scientists must first believe that the norms are within their grasp.

For their part, universities need to rethink their own commitment to ethical standards and the role they can plan in engendering respect for those standards among students. At some universities, graduate students have resorted to open rebellion or unionization when conditions seemed intolerable. Surely it would be better for institutions to outline and enforce basic rights for their graduate students in the first place. We fail our students and shirk our responsibility to provide a climate conducive to ethical research when we ignore our obligation to establish healthy relationships between students and faculty members.

Glenn McGee is an assistant professor of bioethics and director of the Responsible Research Training Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Copyright (©) 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Title: Young Scientists Need to Feel a Personal Stake in Ethics
Published: 96/08/2

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Edited by: [September 1996]