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

John F. Ahearne

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.

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