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Importance of Ethical Scientific Communication

Science is an enterprise built on trust.  It is rare that a research lab starts a field of discovery from the ground up.  Most often, researchers build upon the discoveries of others to open new doors of truth.  You must have trust that the discoveries upon which your work is based are truthful and accurate.

In recent years, there have been some landmark cases where scientists have been disgraced as their work was shown to be falsified and fraudulent.  Their quest for success led them to cheat, and the results of their work have had huge consequences.  The work of honest scientists who based their lab's research assumptions on another's lies is no longer valid.  The safety of medicines approved based on what has been shown to be fraudulent research is thrown into doubt.  Millions of dollars in research funds are wasted pursuing lines of research that were lies from the start. Product fraud and patient death could lead to huge lawsuits.  It is no wonder that honesty is essential in scientific communication.  A case in point is the discovery of falsified stem cell research by South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Click here to read the full story shown below at BBC News.

So, how do we insure our work is communicated in an ethical way?  Common sense would tell us that we must not misrepresent anything.  We must report on all relevant results and not just those that support our case.  We must not pass the exception off as the standard result.  We must understand that no experiment is a failure if the scientist is looking for truth instead of a pre-determined outcome.  In golf, the phrase "play it as it lies" means you accept the lie of your golfball and play it from that position, rather than moving it or otherwise improving your chance to make a good shot.  The same thing goes for research - like them or not, your results are your results, and those that go against the "expected" point you toward the truth instead of allowing you to accept a lie. At the same time, the peer-reviewers are playing "devil's advocate" to test and approve the quality of the research and results you submit.  So by these two practices - self-control to "play it as it lies" and peer review - ethical communication of science is promoted.

Click this link to visit the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity's list of case summaries for actions taken against scientists found guilty of unethical behavior.  

Read and summarize a Case Summary (your instructor may assign a different case summary to each student in the class from the various years for which records are provided) looking for (1) what fraud was committed; (2) where it was committed (a grant application, a publication, etc.); and (3) what punishment was administered.

Your instructor may wish for your class to participate in the interactive training video "The Lab", available at this link.  You can follow the actions of four members of a research lab where research fraud is suspected.  Your instructor may assign you to "play" the role of one of the individuals and go through the decision-making process involved as the case unfolds.  This is enlightening and fun.

Also, the ORI site has a tutorial to help with scientific writing to avoid plagiarism, self-plagiarism (yes, it is possible to plagiarize your own work!), and other forms of improper citation.  Your instructor may ask you to pursue this activity, which you can find here.

When you are done, click here to take a quiz over this section.