Could more be done to teach young chemists the right ethics?

Disclaimer: As always this is just my opinion. In fact, this blog post is more of a stream of consciousness that I’ve had today more than a structured argument. Please feel free to discuss this issue with me on Twitter (@doctor_galactic) or in the comments section.

Do young scientists need more guidance on scientific ethics?

Do young scientists need more guidance on scientific ethics?

I imagine that by now most of the chemistry community is aware of the “Dorta affair” that has been recently exposed by ChemBark. In brief, a recently published article in the journal Organometallics contained a rather suspcious note in its supporting information that seemed to suggest that the principal investigator was asking his student to fabricate elemental analysis data (the actual supporting information can be found here).

This line will probably lead to a "meme". Please just don't. Do something with cats instead.

This line will probably lead to a “meme”. Please just don’t. Do something with cats instead.

How this note, which appears on page 12, came to be, what it actually means and how it got through the peer review process are all under investigation. Unsurprisingly, this issue has sparked a huge amount of debate. As for my own two pence on the issue, I’m reserving judgement until all of the facts have been fully revealed. Let’s just say it does not look good, at all. I will say that I hope that everyone stays professional as distinctly dislike “witch hunts” and “personal assassinations”. So far, the authors have not defended themselves and they should have the opportunity to do so. The paper is currently I believe being withdrawn.

All in all though seeing something like this in a published work reminds me of a song by Tim Vine and should sound “Alarm Bells”:

Science in general is receiving an ever increasing amount of scrutiny concerning just how widespread fraud is, be it plagiarism, deception, bribery, sabotage, professorial misconduct or simply making shit up. A lot of this is likely a symptom of the “publish or perish” culture that seems to have a vice-like grip on the scientific world. Research-oriented universities put pressure on scholars, particularly those early in their careers, to publish as much as possible. This can detract from the amount of time that they have to actually teach and train undergraduates and postgraduates. Universities largely don’t seem to hire on teaching/mentoring ability, but rather by apparent research prowess. This approach can be detrimental to creating the next generation of scientists.

Anyway, all of this leads to some questions (and the point of this already rambling blog post); from where do we new chemists learn our scientific ethical compass? And could we do more to teach chemists (and scientists in general) the correct ethics?

PhD comics has a comic covering most things in your PhD and a lot of them are very accurate.

One imagines that the biggest influence on your ethical choices as a student of the sciences are your teachers, lecturers and subsequently your PhD supervisor. Let’s go straight to the example of PhD students. I’ve certainly worked for senior chemists who were ethical and always encouraged the right sort of behaviour. But, what if they hadn’t? What if you do have a supervisor who encourages you to do something that is not ethically correct? Most of us would say that we’d cry foul and say no. However, clearly this is not the case for all of us. It seems that would probably go along what our supervisor suggests, PhD’s are stressful, supervisors often want results all the time, corners may be cut and it may seem all perfectly innocent and reasonable if your supervisor says it’s okay. They are your direct boss. This is the person you work for after all, they are your scientific mentor.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that a supervisor can be ethically perfect and a student can still do things that are not. In which case it is still the supervisors responsiblity to: a) spot this and b) stamp it out.

By the time you get to being a PhD student you should have already developed a strong idea of the ethical rights and wrongs of science. You should feel empowered enough to say no if you are asked to do something that you know is wrong. This empowerment and the ideals should come from the top down at your University (that place of learning that you’re spending a huge amount of money to attend). They should have provided you with ethical guidelines and a structure by which to report any ethical problems that you run into. However, is what you get from your University on this subject adequate?

I posted the following question on Twitter to my chemistry based followers (of which I have quite a few these days!):

The response so far have ranged from PhDs being given full courses (even at the undergraduate level) to practically nothing at all. In my own experience, I don’t recall any formal courses or talks being made at my University on this subject, at least not any that were mandatory or weren’t so perfunctory that I actually could remember them. Like a lot of universities mine ran “doctoral workshops”, but attendance at these was never truly enforced, they are merely suggestions. This can vary wildly from insitution to instuition, and from supervisor to supervisor. Yet, it really shouldn’t. There should be some kind of set standard level of training. The general impression given during a PhD is that your laboratory work comes first and everything else is secondary and should happen off your own back. In part, I feel like this is actually okay sometimes, after all, every PhD students should take responsibility for their own career and personal development.

Take this place. Not that hot on the ethics. At least it’s only a Disney film.

The question becomes, are universities giving PhD students the tools to do this? I have only good things to say about the supervisors I have worked for, but I cannot say the same for the institutions I have worked at. I haven’t written a blog post on my experiences with university administrations (mainly because it brings up bad memories and I think it’s time to let bygones be bygones), but suffice to say that I have generally felt, at times, like those higher up have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward postgraduates.

At my postgraduate university the grand sum of ethics training for PhD student was a handbook to read and a form to sign. It’s all in there of course, in black and white, the “do’s and don’ts” and the consequences and processes, but these are just words on a page. It’s something you read, sign a piece of paper to say that you have read it and then, probably, never read again. That’s it. All ethic’d up for 3-4 years. The same kind of forms and hand books come out again at Post Doctoral stage.

I think that universities should take more responsibility for ensuring that students are adequately equipped to understand and follow the ethical guidelines of science. That students feel empowered enough to take a stand and report unethical behaviour and recognise that a good scientist is an ethical scientist. It is something that should be drilled into those learning science from the moment they enter an institution of higher learning until the day that they leave it (preferably before this). I’d advocate training courses at undergraduate, postgraduate and post doctoral levels, giving case studies, advice and information about the procedures in place at the university to deal with ethical issues.

This should really form only a small part of an all around more adequate training for postgraduate students at all higher education institutions. So that PhD students are better equipped for their future careers. Currently, it’s a complete lottery in terms of the amount and quality of extra training and support that are available to postgraduates and this should not be the case.

Going back to the title of this blog post; could more be done to teach young chemists the right ethics?


-The Lab Coat Cowboy-