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Making Ethical Guidelines Matter

Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct

Michael J. Zigmond

Getting Specific

Professional societies have a long and honorable history, tracing back at least to the 15th century. But only very recently have scientific societies begun to establish guidelines on research ethics for their members. Today, more than 50 societies have written guidelines, and this is as it should be: Professional organizations are in a unique position to promote the responsible conduct of research.

Responsibility for overseeing research ethics has typically fallen to research institutions rather than societies. But institutions can set standards only for the most basic and universal matters, such as plagiarism and fabrication of data. Other aspects of research, including authorship, data management and the sharing of reagents, can be too specific to a given field to be regulated at the institutional level.

True, professional societies are generally ill-equipped to investigate claims of misconduct. They also have limited powers of enforcement and few penalties to impose on those who misbehave. But societies are often in the best position to understand and set standards of conduct for the specific segment of science that they represent. Moreover, although there are some 2,500 colleges and universities in the United States alone, there are far fewer scientific societies—each of which can efficiently communicate with a large number of scientists. Finally, societies are increasingly involved in publishing research journals and organizing conferences at which scientists present results. In such venues, these organizations have a unique opportunity—and an obligation—to educate their members about responsible conduct.

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