Scientific Ethics, Enculturation, and Policy

This is serious.

Much like our past discussion of publication ethics, some how I picked this one up by osmosis long before I discovered the written rules about it. Isn’t that strange? I can’t even quite tell you how I learned that’s what scientific ethics demands. So it is some how a “caught” rule as much as it is also a written rule.

What do you make of that @sfmatheson?

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Well, much of what I wrote about obligations in professional scientific discourse is not, in fact, written down in the form of “written rules.” There are examples of horribly unprofessional feuds (the geology/paleo community has the one about volcanoes and the K-T extinction) with conduct even worse than what we’re seeing from this person, and I don’t think there are professional sanctions (or organizations to create/enforce them) in play. I think this is a shame, and I’d love to be proven wrong (by seeing examples of professional societies, for example, that intervene and/or sanction when a scientist refuses to accept norms of professional dialogue).

But much of the responsibility for maintaining norms falls on journals, and I think that’s fair. For example, suppose an author writes to us to point out that their clearly relevant work was not cited in a paper we published. Our first response is to urge the two groups to discuss the concern. Same goes for other complaints about scientific credit, or authorship. It all starts with professional correspondence, and we make this an explicit expectation. But we have no power to sanction anyone; the most we can do is facilitate (or mandate) correction of errors.

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Here is one article on this:

No, it applies in professional disputes and is not a matter of law. It is expected that all institutions that receive federal funding from the NIH follow several ethical guidelines concerning research conducted with their funding. Most institutions apply these guidelines to research conducted by any funding, including non federal funding.

Great point! Does it apply in our current context? I doubt it. And it seems that “research misconduct” is not what we’re talking about here, at least not the way NIH sees it. But maybe there is something in the rules somewhere about misrepresenting research findings in the literature?

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Yes there is. Research misconduct includes misrepresenting the scientific literature in reviews or summaries of the field.

Also, the rules are the way they are because of the norms of science, not the fiat of the NIH. So the rules cary strong normative source even in places where the NIH can’t technically enforce them.

It works much the same way as COPE. I’m pretty sure most journals don’t have an official requirement to follow COPE, and there certainly isn’t an external body forcing them to follow COPE. However, COPE codifies scientific norms in a way such that even if a journal doesn’t know about COPE, they are probably using policies really similar to it any ways. If an irregularity is pointed between COPE and their policies, they would most likely change their policies to align with COPE. In this way, COPE has normative force because it codifies scientific norms.

It’s the same way with NIH misconduct policies. NIH does enforce them, but the policies reflect norms that exist in science outside the NIH.

What I find particularly interesting is that these norms are not at all common place or intuitive, yet somehow as scientists we are enculturated to them even if we’ve never heard of COPE or studied NIH policies carefully.

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Do you think this has occurred in the conversations that form the context of this thread?

Your point earlier is critical for determining this:

Enforcing scientific ethical norms is supposed to be a last resort. We are supposed to exhaust every other avenue to correct them before making accusations of research misconduct. That is why, for example, I asked Jeanson to correct a clear misrepresentation: Would Jeanson Please Correct A Clear Misrepresentation?.

Any honest scientist, as soon as he saw this, would correct the misrepresentation. In that case, it would be a real misrepresentation, but we wouldn’t call it misconduct. We’d all see that the scientist responded to the community’s correction, and respect him for making the change. All of us make mistakes and oversights, and we’d just chalk this up an overzealous summary or overstatement of what he read. It’s just a mistake. A real mistake, but nothing to worry about.

However, if it is a serious error, and no correction is made, in that case the situation escalates. If we cared to push the issue, we probably would not call it research misconduct yet, but we might take this to others. If no correction was made then, the situation would escalate more.

So innocent mistakes can meet the definition of research misconduct on a surface level, but it is really in how we respond (or fail to respond) to correction that escalates it to research misconduct. That seems to be how the rules work. What do you think @sfmatheson?

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This is exactly right. In the context of publishing, mistakes–even really big ones–do not imply misconduct by themselves. There’s even a gray area where we ask about whether an unacceptable manipulation (of an image, most commonly) was in some sense an “innocent mistake” because the person simply didn’t know that their action was inappropriate. But what matters is what happens after the problem or error is brought to light. The worst thing a scientist can do in that situation is to “counterattack” or be defensive or evasive. Such behaviors are seen as suspicious in addition to unprofessional, and they always make the situation worse. More to the point, refusal to correct an error does indeed become inappropriate, and can rise to the level of misconduct. (Again, I’m writing in the context of publication.)

But your description is really good for another reason: making errors isn’t necessarily an unpleasant undesirable glitch in science. It seems a cliche, but it’s actually a deep truth: making and correcting errors is fundamentally scientific. It has to happen. I know we’re talking about something different here–obnoxious behavior that should involve a correction and an apology. But it’s not that different. Humans get frustrated and annoyed and lash out, and then mistakes happen, but they are correctable and people can grow.

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This is written down though in the whistleblowers bill of rights, right?

I’m not an expert on that, but would guess it applies in legal contexts but not in professional disputes. The principles apply, I’m sure.

I think most of us have some pretty decent intuitions about what would be the ethical thing to do in a debate about the truth, and in addition “show your work” is one of those things we all get drilled into us from elementary school on.

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