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Ultimately, ethics in scientific publishing, as in life, comes down to one word

John F. Ahearne

2011-03EthicsAhearneFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDuring my 20-year career in the United States capital advising several levels of government on matters of energy and defense, I witnessed many instances of honesty, as well as some of dishonesty, and the consequences of each. Those experiences reinforced my commitment—one held throughout my adult life—to practice the virtue of honesty and to instill it in my colleagues. But even though truthfulness is essential to progress, it is clearly not so easy to uphold. As the Roman poet Juvenal wrote in the first century a.d., “Honesty is praised and then left to freeze.” Touted but not applied. This frailty of human nature, lamented for millennia, clearly has ongoing implications for the progress of both science and society.

What Is Honesty?

A dictionary definition of honesty belies the rigor and complexity of its practice. According to the Random House description, honesty is: 1. The quality or fact of being honest; uprightness and fairness. 2. Truthfulness, sincerity or frankness. 3. Freedom from deceit or fraud. The commitment required to realize these simple terms is more clearly implied in a second definition, drawn from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms, Antonyms and Prepositions: “One who is honest in the highest and fullest sense is scrupulously careful to adhere to all known truth and right even in thought.”

Few would contest the desirability of honesty, and good intentions are nearly universal. As Tina Gunsalus, director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, observes: “Almost everybody wakes up every day and wants to do the right thing.” Later in the day, the goal may be thwarted; the potential pitfalls are many.

One might ask, for example, what long-term damage could come from seemingly insignificant transgressions. This reasoning seems to be a common justification among students who cheat on exams, papers and even theses. If such students don’t understand who is harmed, it is hard to convince them that the detriments of deceit outweigh the benefits. Ethicist Sissela Bok, however, warns that “trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” Thus small transgressions, if discovered, can easily destroy one’s credibility on a larger scale. And, even if undiscovered, missteps set up the classic “slippery slope” on which small transgressions lead to larger ones. Habits form, and harm is done first to one’s self and then to others.

Dishonesty may also take the form of omission, as opposed to overt deception. To address the entire truth without exception can demand extraordinary courage, as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has demonstrated. In early November 2010, Ban met with President Hu Jintao of China in Beijing. He discussed climate change, tensions on the Korean peninsula and peacekeeping. However, as the editors of The New York Times pointed out, “He was shamefully silent on one critical issue: China’s poor human rights record and its unjustified imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the country’s leading democracy activist and … winner of the [2010] Nobel Peace Prize.” Ban has many responsibilities, but speaking truth to power is one of them, and in Beijing he was unable to deliver.

This is not to say that it is impossible to elevate ethical commitments above the immediate obstacles. In his 1955 book Profiles in Courage, then-Senator John Kennedy emphasized that individuals can rise above their desire for personal advantage and advocate positions that they know are right—even when doing so may damage their careers. Among the courageous figures featured in the book are John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston and Robert Taft. Although these men held positions that were often right, they suffered politically for doing so. Robert Taft, for example, was a leading figure in the Republican Party when he gave a speech attacking the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Although he did not support any of the Nazi actions, he concluded that the injustices in the trials were too great to ignore. He was harshly criticized by his party.

In today’s political environment of bitter attack ads and communications at the speed of the Internet, such courageous positions can have immediate negative consequences. Perhaps because of that, in recent years principled stands taken by political leaders seldom seem to be positions that could harm their careers.

A House of Cards

The value of honesty to science is not essentially different from its value to society as a whole, but the progress and application of science do depend fundamentally on the truthful reporting of research. As Nobel Laureate Michael Bishop explained to a group of high-school students, “Each of us builds our discoveries on the work of others; if that work is false, our constructions fall like a house of cards and we must start all over again.” This dependency is widely recognized and acknowledged in science and engineering. Consider, for example, the National Academies’ instruction manual for new interns, which states that the “responsible and ethical conduct of research is critical for excellence, as well as public trust, in social science, science and engineering, and is considered essential to the preparation of future scientists and engineers.”

In the later decades of the 20th century, examples of scientific misconduct led scientific establishments to formalize ethical guidelines. One such code was published by the National Academies in On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research. First printed in 1988 and now in its third edition, the booklet clearly addresses the role of honesty and trust in research:

Over many centuries, researchers have developed professional standards designed to enhance the progress of science and to avoid or minimize the difficulties of research.… Researchers have three sets of obligations that motivate their adherence to professional standards. First, researchers have an obligation to honor the trust that their colleagues place in them.… Second, researchers have an obligation to themselves. Irresponsible conduct in research can make it impossible to achieve a goal.… Third, because scientific results greatly influence society, researchers have an obligation to act in ways that serve the public.

A failure to meet these obligations is corrosive to science. As the authors of On Being a Scientist explain:

The scientific enterprise is built on a foundation of trust.… When this trust is misplaced and the professional standards of science are violated, researchers are not just professionally affronted—they feel that the base of their profession has been undermined. This would impact the relationship between science and society.

Thus a failure to be honest can directly damage the scientific enterprise and can also erode the public’s faith in science.

Publication and Temptation

2011-03EthicsAhearneFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageOf course, each discipline of science and engineering faces unique ethical challenges, including the humane treatment of research animals and the environmental consequences of engineering designs. But one nearly universal ambition among scientists and engineers at all stages of their careers is publication. In the words of biologist and former editor-in-chief of Science Donald Kennedy, “in the world of scholarship, we are what we write. Publication is the fundamental currency … research quality is judged by the printed word.” And as stated in On Being a Scientist:

The rewards of science are not easily achieved. At the frontiers of research, new knowledge is elusive and hard won. Researchers often are subject to great personal and professional pressures.

Authorship is therefore essential for scientists who seek career advancement in academia, industry and government. But the high-pressure obligation to publish may drive some researchers to ethical violations. Triggered by ethical lapses in two prominent physics cases, the American Physical Society (APS) formed a Task Force on Ethics. The team, led by Frances Houle, surveyed all APS members who had completed a Ph.D. within the past three years. The results, published in 2004, were disturbing: 39 percent of respondents said they had personal knowledge of ethical transgressions, the two most common of which were inclusion of inappropriate authors on a publication and exclusion of appropriate authors. One respondent wrote that “many breaches of ethics arise from the pressure to publish.… The recent sad events [show] that it is for many people more important to publish spectacular results than to publish true results.”

Physicists are not alone in their difficulties with authorship, the fair assignment of which presents a major and ongoing challenge in all fields of science and engineering that have been surveyed. Abuse of power may lead to the exclusion of deserving authors, and “guest” authorship may be offered to individuals who did not participate substantially in the research. Temptations to cut corners can be great.

Among the ethical transgressions involving authorship, perhaps the most egregious are fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. According to Responsible Science, “fabrication is making up data or results,” and “falsification is changing data or results.” These usually involve experimental results. Plagiarism does not: It is “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit,” says the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct. Under pressure, some authors maintain honesty and follow the guidelines of science. Some do not.

The other side of the publication coin is peer review, a necessary form of quality control that helps ensure the value of a publication. But controversy continues about the fairness and adequacy of the process, and serving as a reviewer can be both an honor and a burden.

W. Robert Connor, the former director of the National Humanities Center, summed up the ethical complexity of a reviewer’s task in The Responsible Researcher, a Sigma Xi handbook that I wrote:

[For] investigators who may find themselves asked to participate in peer review decisions at a relatively early stage in their careers … there are a host of issues that need to be thought through—how one deals with friends or rivals whose applications may be in the pile, how one deals with approaches and methodologies that may be legitimate but with which one is not sympathetic, how much one can legitimately "borrow" from research proposals one reviews, etc.

Clearly, the issues surrounding authorship and peer review are many. Their nuances have been and will be discussed further in these pages throughout the year. At the root of any publication decision, however, should be the basic quality of honesty. Without it, the system of credit, responsibility and quality control in the scientific record is undermined—and the house of cards will fall.

Not So Fast

The virtue of honesty seems to be under great challenge in the world of blogs, Twitter and television “news” programs. Mark Twain identified the fundamental problem: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” If only these media were used as often to expose lies and herald truths.

Honesty is necessary for science to advance. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be necessary for society’s leaders, the individuals who largely hold the purse strings for science, to practice honesty. Recently, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about this problem:

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues—deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate—let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together.

For the long-term health of the research community and of the individual, honesty is the best policy.


  • Ahearne, J. 1999. The Responsible Researcher: Paths and Pitfalls. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi.
  • Bok, S. 1978. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. 2009. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, third edition. Washington: National Academies Press.
  • Friedman, T. L. 2010. Too good to check. The New York Times (November 16).
  • Gudeman, K. 2010. University of Illinois to develop national center for ethics in science, mathematics and engineering. Coordinated Science Laboratory News. (Accessed January 19, 2011)
  • Hamilton, J., et al. 2003. Report of Ethics Task Force to APS Council. (Accessed January 19, 2011)
  • Kennedy, D. 1997. Academic Duty. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Kirby, K., and F. A. Houle. 2004. Ethics and the welfare of the physics profession. Physics Today 57:42–46.
  • The New York Times editors. 2010. Mr. Ban pulls his punches. The New York Times (November 2).
  • Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. 1992. Responsible Science, Volume I: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
  • University of Notre Dame. 2010. Responsible Conduct of Research Statement. (Accessed January 19, 2011)

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