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Making Ethical Guidelines Matter

Professional societies are uniquely positioned to develop effective codes of conduct

Michael J. Zigmond

The Big Thaw

If some senior scientists refuse to follow an ethical guideline even in a mere case study, perhaps it is fair to ask: Do guidelines for responsible conduct matter? Do they make a difference? Unfortunately, we have little information with which to evaluate this essential question. But then, we actually have little information about the impact of any ongoing effort to reduce scientific misconduct—behaviors that are almost certainly very rare but are nonetheless of great significance to science. And we must ask, as we do of the proverbial tree falling unheard in the forest, does a set of guidelines that remains unread make a sound?

In an earlier essay in this series (March–April 2011), John Ahearne quoted the Roman poet Juvenal, who observed that “honesty is praised and then left to freeze.” And Caelleigh has written:

Anyone who works to change human behavior engages in “magical thinking” at some point—such as the irresistible hope that small, simple changes can produce large complex results in behavior… Magical thinking also underlies the situation when a scientific society passes a resolution that its members are committed to the highest standards in all aspects of research and then, based on the resolution alone, expects members to meet the standards.

As the chair of the initial SfN committee on guidelines for communicating research findings, I worried a great deal about the fate of our document. How might we avoid letting our guidelines “freeze,” sitting in the archives only to be thawed when a potential ethical breach was discovered and procedural guidelines were required? How would we avoid “magical thinking”—something that should, after all, be anathema to any group of scientists? As a researcher in the field of brain disorders, I am interested in preventing diseases as well as treating them, and I believe that guidelines should serve a similar pair of functions. Thus, my colleagues and I have sought ways to make our code a more effective educational tool, not just a reactive mechanism to deal with misconduct. And I believe that we are beginning to be successful.

To accomplish this, the SfN has added to its lively array of lectures and workshops on ethics, providing several specific programs that complement the guidelines. This has been particularly evident since 2010 when the society issued revised guidelines for responsible communication and established an e-mail address through which individuals can make comments or raise questions about those guidelines. The SfN has also recently hosted two international symposia on responsible conduct in communicating scientific results, along with a two-day workshop on the subject. And the society has commissioned a manual that will contain its guidelines on research communication along with related ethics case studies, discussion notes and a bibliography for further reading. That manual will be ready for distribution to SfN members and other interested individuals later this year. We anticipate that it, too, will help the guidelines serve the educational purpose for which they were designed and keep them from being relegated to the archives. I urge other professional societies to take similar approaches if they have not already done so. Let us do away with magical thinking and rewrite Juvenal’s quote to state: “honesty is praised and then helps us change the world around us!”

Extended Bibliography

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2000. The role and activities of scientific societies in promoting research integrity: A report of a conference.
  • Bullock, M., and S. Panicker. 2003. Ethics for all: Differences across scientific society codes. Science and Engineering Ethics 9:159–170.
  • Caelleigh, A. S. 2003. Roles for scientific societies in promoting integrity in publication ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics 9:221–241.
  • Committee on Assessing Integrity in Research Environments, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2002. Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct. National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
  • Davis, M. 2007. Eighteen rules for writing a code of professional ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics 13:171–189.
  • Fischer, B. A., and M. J. Zigmond. 2001. Promoting responsible conduct in research through “survival skills” workshops: Some mentoring is best done in a crowd. Science and Engineering Ethics 7:563–87.
  • Frankel, M. S. 2000. Scientific societies as sentinels of responsible research conduct. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 224:216–219.
  • Frankel, M. S., and S. J. Bird. 2003. The role of scientific societies in promoting research integrity. Science and Engineering Ethics 9:139–140.
  • Levine, F. J., and J. M. Iutcovich. 2003. Challenges in studying the effects of scientific societies on research integrity. Science and Engineering Ethics 9:257–268.
  • Macrina, F. L. 2007. Scientific societies and promotion of the responsible conduct of research: Codes, policies, and education. Academic Medicine 82: 865–869.
  • Society for Neuroscience. 2009. Responsible conduct regarding scientific communication. The Journal of Neuroscience 19: 0iii-0xvi. Current guidelines and any updates available at
  • Zigmond, M. J. 1999. Promoting responsible conduct: Striving for change rather than consensus. Science and Engineering Ethics 5: 219–228.
  • Zigmond, M. J. 2003. Implementing ethics in the professions: Preparing guidelines on scientific communication for the Society for Neuroscience. Science and Engineering Ethics 9:191–200.

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