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Making Ethical Guidelines Matter

Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct

Michael J. Zigmond


The question of sharing manuscripts evoked little debate in our committee or in the governing council of the SfN. Some issues were even more straightforward: One cannot imagine, for example, a serious argument in favor of falsifying data. But few aspects of responsible conduct are so simple. Like most sets of guidelines, our document dealt with many subtler issues, some of which have led to a good deal of discussion. Among them were authorship, dual publication, plagiarism and sharing reagents.

Authorship: Should the head of a research group automatically be listed as an author of every publication that derives from his or her lab? Does a technician who spent many hours collecting valuable data qualify as an author? The SfN guidelines say no in both cases, stating clearly that intellectual contribution is an essential criterion for authorship. But it took a lot of discussion for our committee to reach this position, and it is still not universally accepted within our field.

Dual publication: Although we encouraged informal sharing of manuscripts, our guidelines say that publishing the same material in two primary research journals is always wrong. But what if an author works in a country where English, the language of nearly all internationally known journals, is not well understood by those who would benefit from reading the paper? In such cases, a translation could be beneficial, and some have argued that the “no dual publication” rule hampers the distribution of knowledge.

Plagiarism: The prohibition against publishing someone else’s text or data without permission is clear enough, but what about the use of someone else’s ideas? If, for instance, a 1993 publication by Jones states: “We believe that maternal stress often leads to a marked change in the endocrine response to stress in offspring,” then the use of those very words would require quotation marks and a specific reference to Jones, 1993. But what if a later author writes: “We think that stressing a mother can alter the hormonal reaction to a stressor in neonates”? Quotation marks are no longer appropriate, but surely the minor change in wording still warrants a reference to Jones. How many words must one change to absolve oneself of providing a citation? Often this is a judgment call, but it is always better to err on the side of giving Jones some credit.

Sharing research reagents: The SfN guidelines are quite emphatic about this, stating that “unique … materials used in studies being reported must be made available to qualified scientists for bona fide research purposes.” This directive is consistent with the regulations of most biomedical journals and funding agencies. But what of the student who spent years developing a reagent in order to conduct specific experiments and now wishes to reap the benefits? Surely, in evaluating what is best for science, one should also consider what is best for the careers of scientists, especially junior ones. This tension became all too clear to me at an event that I wrote about in 2003 in Science and Engineering Ethics. I quote from that report:

A year after the publication of the [SfN] guidelines I decided to help promote an awareness of the document by organizing a workshop at a small conference of neuroscientists. My focus was on the stipulation that authors be prepared to share with other investigators any materials developed in a lab and described in a peer-reviewed publication—a requirement that … had been considerably strengthened as a result of input to the guideline committee. I invited several “opinion leaders” to help with this task, including a member of the editorial board of a prominent neuroscience journal and the director of a federal agency that supports research in neuroscience. To bring a little bit of levity to an otherwise very serious discussion, party hats were provided for each of the discussants. For example, the editor was given the shade of a copy editor and the director of the funding agency received Uncle Sam’s top hat. Then I distributed an ethics case:
“Dr. Michelle Tyson is happy. She has just completed three years of hard work as a postdoc and has a great deal to show for it: She’s developed a knockout mouse (Syko) that is a model for schizophrenia, published a paper on that mouse in a prestigious journal, and has secured an assistant professorship at State University. She knows that the new mouse and the paper were critical in getting her the job and she’s ready to show the search committee that they did the right thing: She will immediately set up her new lab and then begin to reap the benefits of her hard work by exploring the neurobiology of this mouse. However, no sooner had she arrived at State University, than she received an email message from Dr. Max Megalab asking her to provide a dozen mice from her Syko colony. It is clear from the email that Dr. Megalab understands the potential of the mouse line and will have no trouble figuring out and completing the very experiments that Dr. Tyson had plans to pursue. Should Dr. Tyson provide the mouse?”
Imagine my surprise when no one on the panel felt that Dr. Tyson should provide the mouse and thereby follow the guidelines for sharing! Instead, concerns were raised about the fairness of asking a hardworking junior researcher to turn over the fruits of her labor to Dr. Megalab, the possibility that people would rather postpone publication than share a unique resource that was critical to their ongoing experiments, the absence of funds to facilitate the distribution of those materials, or the means by which the guidelines would be enforced. (For comments on this case, see [].) I was still trying to deal with this unexpected outcome the next morning when I returned to the location of the workshop only to discover that my own key reagents—the party hats—had apparently been stolen! I have not tried to repeat this experiment.

In a recent review of the original guidelines, the SfN reaffirmed its mandate that reagents must be shared if they are not otherwise available—a practice that reduces the waste of funds for making duplicate reagents and also promotes attempts to replicate published results. But just as in the case of honorary authorship, the regulation is not universally followed.

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