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Making Ethical Guidelines Matter

Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct

Michael J. Zigmond

Integrity in Neuroscience

My own work developing guidelines for professional conduct is almost solely with the SfN. But my experiences may illustrate how other societies could begin such an endeavor, what they might do once guidelines are adopted, and what problems they might encounter. The SfN example also illustrates how a society can go beyond guidelines alone to promote research integrity in other dynamic ways.

2011-07EthicsZigmondFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe SfN is a relatively young society. The word neuroscience itself did not even appear in the literature until the 1960s, and the SfN was created in 1969. Since then, both the field and the society have expanded rapidly. Indeed, during the past five years, a quarter of a million research articles on aspects of the nervous system were published. That amounts to more than 100 papers every day! And the size of SfN membership has expanded dramatically since its inception, growing from a few hundred to more than 40,000 members.

Shortly after its inception, the SfN began to take on ethical issues. In the early 1980s, public concern arose over the treatment of monkeys at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland. In response, the SfN organized a symposium on the use of animals in research, established a standing committee on the treatment of laboratory animals and human subjects, and developed a formal policy on those issues. The society also established a general policy on research ethics and an initial statement about fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, which was replaced in 1999 with a comprehensive set of guidelines for responsible conduct in scientific communication.

Also in the early 1980s, the SfN began to offer a Social Issues Roundtable at the society’s annual meetings. Sessions have included “Neuroscience in Developed and Developing Countries: Partnership or Exploitation,” “Perspectives on Gender in Neuroscience” and an overview of several other ethical issues. The series continues today and adapts to encompass timely issues. Shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, for example, the program committee abandoned the intended topic in favor of a special session on the impact and treatment of trauma.

As another addition to the SfN meetings, my colleague Beth Fischer and I began in 1997 to hold annual workshops on professional skills such as writing research articles and making oral presentations. We firmly believe that research ethics are best taught in the context of other skills rather than in isolation, and our workshops adhere to this principle. Skill-centered events tend to attract more students than those that address integrity alone. And where better to discuss authorship criteria and plagiarism than in a workshop on writing research articles? We use the lunch hour for case discussions led by neuroscience faculty members, thereby emphasizing that ethical concerns are worth the time of working scientists. And we establish a supportive culture by acknowledging that students and researchers do need guidance in professional skills that they might not learn in traditional training programs. Melissa Anderson, a social scientist at the University of Minnesota, and her colleagues have shown that such a culture fosters research integrity. To use the words of Addeane Caelleigh, former editor of Academic Medicine, we provide a “hidden curriculum” by presenting a “message of actions rather than formal statements.”

The twin objectives of educating and promoting a culture of responsible conduct also led the SfN to establish in 2003 the ongoing annual Neuroethics Lectures. At the most recent lecture, Henry Greely spoke of the many ethical issues raised by discoveries in neuroscience. Among the difficult questions he addressed were: If we develop cognitive enhancers, should they be available to anyone or only to those with special needs? And should we try to detect neurological diseases before symptoms appear even when there are no treatments? At the same meeting, the SfN held a special session called “The Brain on Trial,” in which neurologists testified before an actual judge about whether a fictitious individual should be convicted of murder despite evidence in his brain scans.

In 2006, growing interest in the intersection of neuroscience and ethics spawned a whole new organization, now named the International Neuroethics Society. It coordinates its meetings with those of the SfN and hosts symposia on topics such as global health, predictive biomarkers for disease, and neuroscience and national security.

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