Besides a handful online classes, I have never taken a formal class in research ethics. And I think that’s a serious bummer. I believe graduate schools should offer formal classes in research ethics, especially students pursuing a career in natural sciences.
In the past five months, I have been working on a review manuscript that I plan to submit this summer. Review articles are demanding but sometimes the pay-off is high. Especially when your manuscript is reviewing an emerging research area.
But you must be willing to read at least 200 articles, with a red highlight and a thick notebook. Above all, you should brace for abrasive encounters with academic dishonesty. In the past five months, I had my fair share of such encounters.
As a combed through the 274 papers for my review, I came across serious cases of academic dishonesty. It was easy for me to blame the editors and reviewers for not noticing the unethical research practices. After all, scientific journals should be beacons for promoting research ethics.
However, expecting journal editors and reviewers to fork manuscripts with questionable research ethics is farfetched. It’s like expecting palladium catalyst to convert water into bronze. It ain’t gonna happen.
I believe the best place to teach research ethics is in undergrad. And in this article, I want to show you why research ethics is important and identify some common, yet less talked about, practices that are unethical.
What is research ethics and why is it important?
I learned the importance of research ethics when I was an analytical chemist intern at a national laboratory. The lab was mandated by the state to test and approve agrochemicals used in the country. One day, my boss came to our lab fuming. There was a problem with one of the agrochemicals we had approved – it was out of spec and was destroying crops.
A witch hunt immediately began. As an ISO17025 certified lab, our paper trail was exceptional. In less than two hours, we had found the culprit. A chromatogram showed the concentration of the target compound was higher than recommended. But the analyst wrote on the approval certificate that it was within range.
That small act of dishonesty resulted in a national crisis as many tobacco seedlings were destroyed. Unethical practices in science research may cause unexpected catastrophe. The lady who fudged the results of the pesticides did so out of pressure from the bosses. But most of the time people doctor results so that their results can fit a cute theory.
I learned my first lesson on research ethics from my mother. Our family was on the bottom of the societal rank. She was a widow and we were very poor. So, we sold fruits and vegetables to supplement her monthly meagre pension.
My mother used to send me to the farmer’s market to research on the current practices of fruits and vegetables. The prices rarely changed, so sometimes I would not go to the market and tell her the previous week’s prices. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it didn’t. And the result was, mom would go to the farmer’s market with money that wasn’t enough.
So, what is research ethics? Research ethics is the appropriate application of moral principles in planning, conducting and reporting research. Above all, research ethics define scientifically acceptable norms. Hence, research ethics can be learned from your parents, friends, spiritual leader or professor.
5 common practices in science research that are unethical
As I wrote my review manuscript, I came across 4 practices that looked like prototypes of poor research ethics. The 5th practice I heard about in lobbies at national conferences – it’s the most disgusting.
1. Paraphrasing same paper, publish in different journal
A group of researchers published the same data set twice in different journals. But they were slick. This how they did it; they changed the title of their paper. And then added two new target compounds to their initial 15+.
2. Pick a sub-sample of study, make it an independent paper
Another research team played around with sampling period. They carried out a ten-year survey and published in 2015. Then using a different first author, they published another paper for a 5-year survey in a different journal. And guess what? The 5-year survey was a sub-sample of the first 10-year survey. Slick.
3. Outlier, out of paper
Sometimes researchers use statistics to justify their questionable research ethics practices. You probably have encountered several papers that state they removed certain treatments because they would skew the results. Isn’t that supposed to read: we removed results of treatment A because it didn’t fit well with our hypothesis?
4. Poor research design, poor research ethics
I once heard a talk from a researcher who set out to investigate the degradation of 10 organic pollutants in sediments but discussed on 6. When quizzed about this, she said, “I did my sampling on day 1, 3, 7, 14, 21, 42 and 63. Those four compounds disappeared in the sediment after day 3.” Instead of redesigning her experiment she redesigned her results.
5. The unethical rings of research publishing
You probably heard of citation rings – a group of research cite each other to increase their citation index. But there’s a more pervasive ring; review ring. This is the most dangerous form of academic dishonesty. A group of researchers forms an extensive ring that review each other’s manuscripts and grants.
However, considering ethics in science research are built on individual values and experiences, these researchers might not have been aware of what they did. It is the responsibility of academic institutions to instill good research ethics.
What are other unethical practices you have encountered in your research?
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