University of Texas at Austin

Monday, October 4, 2010

Being aware of ethical research

The student panel at Ethical Research Awareness Day was composed of, from left, Milena Batanova, Jeffrey Easley, Ingrid Bachmann and Jonathan Dau. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

The student panel at Ethical Research Awareness Day was composed of, from left, Milena Batanova, Jeffrey Easley, Ingrid Bachmann and Jonathan Dau. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

The first Ethical Research Awareness Day at The University of Texas at Austin was Sept. 29, but the theme of a meeting to mark the day was that every day should be ethical research awareness day.

The meeting had been in the works for months, but it was held in the wake of high-profile research retractions. See stories about recent retractions based on ethical violations at Harvard University, and at Harvard Medical School and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. And the day of the meeting, Nature published a story about research sabotage that resulted in criminal prosecution.

Paula Poindexter, chair of the research policy committee, emphasized the importance of conducting research in an ethical manner. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

Paula Poindexter, chair of the research policy committee, emphasized the importance of conducting research in an ethical manner.

“You know there’s no better time than now to have ethical research awareness day,” said Paula Poindexter, an associate professor in the School of Journalism, in reference to the recent revelations.

Poindexter is chair of the research policy committee, which is a committee of the university’s Faculty Council. She organized the meeting with Alexandra Loukas, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, and Steven Biegalski, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The university’s ethical research standards are available online.

The obvious lesson from the meeting is that someone conducting research in less than ethical manner will be caught and that the consequences won’t be pretty. Panelists agreed that there are so many ways to find information that, sooner or later, the researcher who falsifies data, plagiarizes or interferes with someone else’s research will be found out.

Even in the recent Harvard University case, in which there was just one other lab in the world that works with the same kind of monkey, problems were revealed. Graduate students in the Harvard lab came forward with their doubts about the research.

The risks of getting caught, even under pressure to get results to attain tenure or finish a dissertation, are not worth it, according to the panelists.

Juan Sanchez, vice president for research, said it is almost assured that cheating at research would be found out. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

Juan Sanchez, vice president for research, said it is almost assured that cheating at research would be found out. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

“It ruins careers, no doubt about it,” said Juan Sanchez, vice president for research. “It ruins young careers. It ruins very established, distinguished careers. So don’t do it.”

The best way to do ethical research is to do it from the start of a research career, the members of the student panel said. And it’s something that has to flow from the leader of a lab.

Jonathan Dau, a senior in biology, said he was “bombarded” with ethical research standards when he was a high school student working in labs at North Texas State University.

“It’s really about the culture in the lab,” he said. “If the principal investigator or the people in the lab emphasize the need to follow these ethical standards that’s what’s most important as a student to learn about these ethical research standards.”

Jeffrey Easley, a graduate student in chemical engineering, said that an ethical culture and trust among lab associates is crucial.

He said as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he had a strong relationship with a Ph.D. student he worked with and that he has that kind of relationship with undergraduates he works with at Texas.

“We have developed that level of trust and I can tell them that I need this done in lab or in another building on another piece of equipment and I can trust the data that they bring back,” he said. “Hopefully, in the future they will carry on these lessons.”

Ingrid Bachmann, a graduate student in journalism, said that research violations have repercussions beyond the individual researcher. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

Ingrid Bachmann, a graduate student in journalism, said that research violations have repercussions beyond the individual researcher. Photo by Rebecca McIntee.

Ingrid Bachmann, a graduate student in journalism, said that while it’s an individual decision to cheat on research, its impact is far wider.

“When you are caught you’re not affecting just your own reputation,” she said. “You’re affecting the program, your colleagues, the whole institution, the journals you published in, funding for everybody else. You are affecting so many lives with your decision.”

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