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

John F. Ahearne

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.

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