Teaching Research Ethics: Why Teach?

Before creating a program of instruction or education in the responsible conduct of research, it is essential to first ask: What are the goals for teaching responsible conduct of research? While some courses may be created only in response to federal or institutional requirements, it is nevertheless important for an instructor to assess what outcomes he/she hopes to achieve, and what changes he/she wants to evoke in a student’s thinking, attitudes and actions. Currently there is no agreed upon set of goals or objectives across institutional training programs in RCR (Kalichman and Plemmons, 2007); however, most teaching goals could fit into one or more of the following four general categories: knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. The current requirements for RCR education, and these different pedagogical goals, are the subject of this section.

Before addressing these goals, it is important to recognize that many scientists are skeptical about the value of explicit education in RCR. While this skepticism is healthy and sometimes appropriate, many arguments against instruction are based on some of the misconceptions described below.

Isn’t responsible conduct just a matter of following regulations?

Although there are explicit regulations that govern some aspects of scientific practice — for instance, the treatment of human subjects — these regulations are insufficient to determine every choice a scientist will need to make. Moreover, scientists must always interpret regulations in their scientific practice. Treating human subjects responsibly involves more than just knowing regulations, and so too with other issues of RCR. This point is sometimes expressed by saying that RCR is more about conscience than it is about mere compliance. Additionally, many scientific practices are not directly covered by regulations, and scientists need to know how to proceed responsibly and with integrity in the absence of regulatory guidance.

Scientists already learn how to do research—doesn’t that mean they’re learning how to do it responsibly?

Where trainees learn by example, they must discern which features are important and which are not. For instance, they might learn that the reagents used are more critical than the style of music played in the lab. Even if they are trained to do research responsibly, then, they may or may not distinguish the elements that are matters of responsibility and integrity from those that are matters of style or manners. Explicit instruction in RCR can serve as an adjunct to and reinforce learning by example, by making trainees reflective about where and when issues of responsibility impinge on their research.

Also, scientists who are not prepared to face ethical dilemmas may not have the presence of mind to do the right thing or the time to figure out what the right thing is. RCR education encourages scientists to think through ethical problems before they arise and before matters are clouded by demands for immediate resolution. 

RCR instruction won’t make anyone do the right thing— so what’s the point?

It is rarely the case that people are intent on doing wrong. Failures of research integrity that result from ignorance or carelessness might be averted by even a modicum of attention to RCR issues. Furthermore, even though a course in research ethics may not set straight a scientist who is intent on falsifying data or mistreating research subjects, such a scientist will interact with peers and coauthors who will be in a position to recognize misconduct. A course in research ethics may be enough to make them more reflective and mindful of ethical issues.

Won’t ethical considerations of “good” and “bad” get in the way of scientific considerations of true and false?

It’s wrong to think that RCR is distinct from the demand to do good science. Promoting the integrity of science is one of the demands of responsible conduct. There may be times when it would be possible to learn something new only by acting irresponsibly, and that knowledge would then come at too high a price. Science is not a disembodied pursuit of truth; it is also a human project.

Can’t science take care of itself?

Since science is self-policing, it may be tempting to think that the scientific community can handle any matters of responsibility by its own methods. This is already rebutted by the creation of regulations to govern scientific research due to past failures of the scientific community to minimize and mitigate misconduct by some scientists. Moreover, RCR education raises issues for scientists in a way that will promote reflection and consciousness of their roles as members of the scientific community. Thus, RCR education can help science take care of itself.


By Carole Roth, 2002, with contributions from Dena Plemmons and Michael Kalichman, 2005-2010.

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