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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2011 > Article Detail

ETHICS

Honesty

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

John F. Ahearne

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.





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