Making Ethical Guidelines Matter
Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct
Back in 1995, I thought it would be a fairly simple job to draft a set of guidelines for the responsible communication of scientific results. The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) wanted such guidelines, and I chaired the committee that drafted them. At first, we assumed that a small group of people would easily prepare a simple document of a few pages. The reality proved to be quite different: The process spanned more than three years, during which our text evolved from a few paragraphs written by two people to about 5,000 words written by a committee of seven, and finally to 13,500 words composed by 13 individuals with experience in academia, industry, publishing and law.
In the end, our guidelines didn’t just give instructions; they explained the reasons that researchers should behave in certain ways. And in generating those explanations, we sometimes decided to modify the very rules we had set out to justify. The SfN continues to refine its guidelines today, and the process has stimulated much reflection on the role of professional societies in establishing ethical guidelines—and keeping them alive, relevant and effective.