Should Researchers Have a Professional Code of Ethics?

by Suzanne M. Rivera, Ph.D.

I was giving a workshop presentation at the annual meeting of the National Council of University Research Administrators and my co-presenter raised an interesting idea. Tommy Coggins of the University of South Carolina was talking about the importance of integrity for preserving the public’s trust in the research enterprise, and he pointed out that, unlike physicians, attorneys, and accountants, researchers do not have a unifying professional code of ethics.  Instead, they are subject to a patchwork of regulations, policies and laws, most of which were promulgated by grant funding agencies and therefore are enforceable only in cases where tax payer dollars are involved.  Although discipline-specific societies, such as the American Psychological Association, have their own ethics codes, researchers as a profession are not asked to adhere to a shared set of standards for their conduct.

And it’s true— there is no unifying code that all researchers (spanning the range of disciplines from anthropology to zoology) must swear to uphold.  And maybe it’s not realistic to expect that people whose jobs entail such a variety of different activities (working with data sets, lasers, yeast, mice, human participants, super colliders, etc.) could find sufficient common ground on which to cobble together a code.  But I wonder if it’s worth a try.  Given the current atmosphere of distrust that has resulted in new rules for increased transparency and oversight of researchers’ financial interests, perhaps the time is right to think explicitly about ethical standards for research.  Not merely avoiding “FFP” misconduct, but an affirmative duty to behave with integrity.

Regardless of discipline, researchers must be truthful and should use resources wisely.  As Nicholas H. Steneck said in his ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research, “Researchers who report their work honestly, accurately, efficiently, and objectively are on the right road when it comes to responsible conduct.”  Does that sum it up?  Is there anything else we would want researchers to promise?  Is being a decent mentor essential?  What about giving appropriate credit in publications?  And what violations would be worthy of censure?  In some professions, for example, sloppy performance is considered a violation of the code.  However, in research there’s a feeling that sloppy work results in failure and therefore is a self-correcting problem.  Is that so?

I understand I’m talking about culture change.  “Researcher” is only in the loosest sense a a profession with shared values.  An ethical code for researchers would add value only insofar as those who adopt it also accept responsibility for upholding it.  Not as a matter of regulatory compliance, but as an ethos of integrity.  Like the codes accepted by lawyers and doctors CPAs, it could act both as a guide for behavior and as a measure by which researchers would hold themselves– and each other– accountable.

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