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Making Ethical Guidelines Matter

Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct

Michael J. Zigmond

Starting from Scratch

It was in the context of these expanding ethics initiatives that the SfN decided to develop guidelines on responsible conduct in communicating scientific results. The stimulus for this committee, which I chaired, was a concern among some society members that a few journals were fast tracking papers—that is, soliciting and then prioritizing certain papers rather than evaluating manuscripts in the order in which they were submitted. But the scope of our committee quickly expanded.

It is often said that one should not reinvent the wheel, and scientists often (but not always) examine what other people have written about a topic before initiating research in that area. Of course, learning too much about what has already been done can close one’s mind to new possibilities. At least that is the committee's excuse for the fact that when we started working on our guidelines, we were not hampered by knowledge! (For those embarking on the task anew, I would now recommend doing a little homework. This might include examining existing guidelines and reading “Eighteen Rules for Writing a Code of Professional Ethics” by Michael Davis, a philosopher at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Caelleigh’s “Roles for Scientific Societies in Promoting Integrity in Publication Ethics” is another excellent resource.) We did eventually make considerable use of the pioneering efforts of the American Chemical Society, which kindly gave us permission to adapt and extend its guidelines for our purposes.

We might also have begun by considering our objective: How did we want our guidelines to be used? Mark Frankel, a senior staff member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has been a major force in encouraging professional societies to promote research integrity. He has noted that codes of ethics come in three flavors: aspirational (what would we like everyone to do?), regulatory (what must we do?) and educational (why should we do this?). Education researchers Felice Levine and Joyce Iutcovich have made a related distinction, noting that such guidelines generally focus on “(1) general education and professional development, (2) prevention and advisement, and (3) complaint handling and enforcement of codes of ethics.” Levine and Iutcovich add that societies also vary in the level of effort they devote to each objective.

But our committee did not begin by contemplating either set of distinctions—or how much effort we would expend. We started out developing what would have been, in retrospect, a brief set of aspirational guidelines. But over three years, we transitioned to a more regulatory and educational approach, so that our final document included extensive discussion and reasoning for each guideline. I believe that this approach made the document not only more valuable but also more honest. By forcing ourselves to justify each directive, we found instances in which we could not do so. And rather than use the “because we said so” explanation, we modified the guidelines.

For some topics, our guidelines were at odds with the codes of other organizations, and we were explicit about this in our document. A case in point involves the matter of placing pre-publication copies of manuscripts on a website. Although this practice is common in some fields, such as physics, some journals do not wish to consider a manuscript that has already appeared on the Web or been circulated widely among colleagues. They may consider such papers to have been previously published or to have lost their novelty. But our committee felt that both practices were not only acceptable but desirable because they helped promote communication among scientists. We did, however, feel obliged to warn authors that, if they followed our recommendations, they might risk having certain journals refuse their manuscripts.

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