Ethical behavior towards others

The ethical treatment of others in research means you are fair to your students, fair to your collaborators, fair to others who have worked in the field, fair to your subjects if you are working on humans, and fair to your readers. What is and is not fair is a matter of perspective and interpretation in some instances. I might focus only the boundary between clearly unethical and marginally all right, but I would rather not. Instead, I will consider what best practices are, something that should make the ethical foundations clear. This will make it easier to think about new cases as they crop up. As is the case for the ethical treatment of data, the biggest worry is our self-serving unconscious selves getting in the way, if we are honest people.

Did you steal your big idea? Ideas may come from new observations and data. They may come from broad reading. They may arise in conversation. A lot of ideas are not useful for research, either because they are too difficult to pursue, or a little reflection reveals their flaws. But it is very important to do your best to understand where your ideas come from and to give full credit to the predecessors. Sometimes a field reaches the point where multiple people have the same idea, but always try to think hard about acknowledging the others that may have had the idea.

Are you doing your best to help your students grow into independent investigators? The path that worked for you might not work for all of your students. Listen to them. Ask them to write at least monthly and comment on their writing. Make sure they take ownership of their projects, whether they are graduate students or undergraduates. Individualize the balance between support and independence. Do not write their papers for them. Help them work through analyses and writing for many drafts, though ultimately you may have to step in more strongly for the final draft. The more you have them write throughout their career, the more competent they will become at clear communication.

Are your research laboratory practices transparent? The job of a professor is complicated and unclear. Even the most successful of us have set backs. It is important to share successes and failures with the laboratory group. They should see grant proposals and papers, ideally as they are submitted, but certainly when they are funded or published. They should know what we are up to. When they get their first jobs, they should have a clear idea of how to flourish.

Who should be an author on that paper? Few things are more contested than authorship. This does not mean that the most infractions occur around authorship, but with authorship issues the parties are usually in contact. Most journals state authorship policies. The standard requirement for authorship is that the authors all be involved in the project. What constitutes that involvement is where disagreements arise. If it is a project that takes a long time, early authors may be unknown to later ones. If it is a complex project, investigators that contributed to different angles may be unknown to each other. Sometimes those that do the actual data collection do not understand why those that wrote the proposal for the research should be authors. There was a time when the technicians, usually female, were not counted as authors by the lab heads, usually male. The justification for this was that they were not part of the creative process and were no more deserving of authorship than was the autoclave or the videocamera. Those days are largely past, as the importance of the technical contributions is appreciated. The important thing about authorship is to talk to each other. In my field, department chairs and the like are not put on as authors, as of course they should not be.

Were you fair in your review of the literature? Even if you didn’t steal your big idea, you may have cited your own work and not the entirely relevant work of others. This is easily done because you know your own work. You have to work to be sure to cite the work of others. Do searches with your main key words to discover papers you may not know about. If you do know about them and they are relevant, cite them. It does not hurt you to cite appropriately. You can’t win by pretending other work wasn’t done.

Surely you were not tempted to plagiarize? Don’t you want to get your own ideas out there? Don’t you want to discover your own voice and use it? Why would you use someone else’s words or structure? I have not made a big study of plagiarism, but I have encountered it. If you are reading along and suddenly a paragraph doesn’t fit, perhaps because it is much more carefully written, or written in a very different style, then you will suspect plagiarism. These days, you can just paste that whole paragraph into a search window and often discover where it came from. So don’t do it. The more often you write, the less hard it will be, so the less tempted you will be by another’s words.

Yet we learn by copying, so how can we still learn and not plagiarize? Say you want to discover effective structures for your piece. Look hard at an article from a different field and see how they structured their piece. Think for each bit how you would translate their structure into your field, and how you might need to change things. Because you have chosen something from a different area, you won’t be tempted to plagiarize. If you have to run a plagiarism checker on your own work, you have copied too much.

What are the most likely inadvertent pitfalls in the ethical treatment of others? You know your own work and your own contributions best, so you are likely to over credit yourself at all levels. Try to be aware of this and credit others appropriately for ideas, authorship, prior work.

written from the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Ethical behavior towards others

  1. David Hillis says:

    Wonderful summary, Joan! Delighted to see such constructive and positive advice being written at the Double Helix Ranch Writer’s Retreat!

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