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Can a Universal Standard of Ethics Govern Science?

The most recent attempt to establish universal standards for ethical issues in global science was developed as part of the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity, held 21-24 July 2010, in Singapore. The “Singapore Statement on Research Integrity” seeks to set forth a set of principles and accompanying responsibilities to guide ethics in science on a global scale.

Unfortunately, the principles laid out in the Singapore Statement convey a pervasive tendency toward “top down” solutions that hold strong potential for unintended consequences.

The Singapore Statement features four principles for research integrity:

  • Honesty in all aspects of research
  • Accountability in the conduct of research
  • Professional courtesy and fairness in working with others
  • Good stewardship of research on behalf of others

While the first three guiding principles are so fundamental as to be beyond dispute, the fourth and final statement is worrisome as a matter of practice.

The Singapore Statement amplifies on its core principles in a series of 14 “Responsibilities.” A literal reading of these supporting items finds four of the 14 responsibilities associated with “Good stewardship” objectionable:

Research Findings: “Researchers should share data and findings openly and promptly, as soon as they have had an opportunity to establish priority and ownership claims.”

Original data is the property of the researcher. The context in which raw data is initially obtained is complex (e.g., machine idiosyncrasies) and can be misinterpreted. Sharing of raw data goes too far, and would not be accepted by even the most careful and highly regarded researchers. The principle of reproducibility, through independent experimental results, is the basis for scientific evaluation of data.

Authorship: “Researchers should take responsibility for their contributions to all publications, funding applications, reports and other representations of their research. Lists of authors should include all those and only those who meet applicable authorship criteria.”

This is a complex issue, and one that may well be viewed differently in various cultures, and even within a single culture. The order of names listed on a given publication is but one example. More importantly, the setting of applicable authorship criteria itself suggests the involvement of an authoritarian body. The pernicious nature of global control over scientific authorship pervades this Responsibility.

Reporting Irresponsible Research Practices: “Researchers should report to the appropriate authorities any suspected research misconduct, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, and other irresponsible research practices that undermine the trustworthiness of research, such as carelessness, improperly listing authors, failing to report conflicting data, or the use of misleading analytical methods.”

First, a question: just exactly who are the “appropriate authorities” to whom one should report? The thought of some august body with oversight responsibilities over “carelessness” or “use of misleading analytical methods” is frightening, the say the least. In addition, the lack of precision in defining these “irresponsible research practices” leads to the prospect of mischievous invasion of personal rights and responsibilities.

Societal Considerations: “Researchers and research institutions should recognize that they have an ethical obligation to weigh social benefits against risks inherent in their work.”

Scientific research should be free to follow scientific instincts, and not be obligated to weigh potential findings against someone’s concept of “social benefits”. Again, who is to judge? For example, “social benefits” in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign dictated environmentally acquired inheritance, propelling Trofim Denisovich Lysenko to political influence and power. As a result, genetic research was stifled, opponents were purged (many were imprisoned), and his promised crop yields failed to materialize. The potential for abuse and damage seems significant here, and the implications of this “Responsibility” are abhorrent.

The scientific community is quite capable of spotting fraudulent behavior and of “policing” itself, as numerous examples would illustrate. When unethical behavior occurs, ostracism follows, effectively putting the offending matter to rest. In the end, the integrity of our work is the best judge of our behavior.

While the issue of research integrity is vitally important, and should be addressed on a global scale, the assemblage of principles must consider the potential for unintended consequences. Even the best intentioned group of scientists can sometimes be wrong in their judgment. But does the Singapore Statement believe that some other body – it doesn’t say whom – could do better? There is a pernicious element here of central control, ill-defined as it is.