Meg recently wrote a nice post on what various people do in lab meetings. The small number of you who regularly read my posts will know I don’t often like bald prescriptions in statistics or about how to do science. I tend to think nuanced, context-dependent answers are better. And on the whole I think this applies to lab meetings too.
But I am going to stick my neck out and make a flat out “you should” statement. You should set aside time in lab meetings to discuss scientific ethics (and I mean discuss – students should be talking most of the time – and I mean set aside – not just mixed in among the science conversation). Inspired in no small part by Meg’s post I recently devoted a full lab meeting to such a discussion in my own lab (I hold lab meetings jointly with another professor), which I had never done before. Its not that I am uncomfortable with the topic, its just that with so many papers to read and presentations to rehearse I had never prioritized it. But Meg’s post inspired me to be creative and a little more proactive about what I thought was important. I want to say up front that I don’t believe there has ever been a major ethics lapse in either of our labs, so that is not why I did it. But in the past year I have been involved peripherally in multiple instances where various parties thought major ethical lapses were happening. And even in our own lab meeting where both advisers are very open and approachable (or so I like think at least), there was such a palpable hunger for talking about the subject that it made me very happy we had taken the time and I plan to repeat this every year or two.
Here’s how we ran the meeting. First I gave a brief verbal overview of what I perceive to be the core ethical issues (I list these below). Then I passed around index cards and made everybody write down something on the card (they could write down “I don’t have a question” if they wanted). Then I had a student trusted by the other students gather these cards. Then we opened up the floor to questions. For most questions myself and the other adviser gave our answers briefly (and we mostly agreed but differences also existed and were informative to students) and especially we let students share their opinions. And sprinkled through the conversation, the student holding the cards made sure all of the anonymous questions got posed. This obviously only works with more than 1-2 students; so if your lab is small, think about other forums like a one-time joint lab meeting, a departmental brown-bag lunch, etc. Also of note, I don’t think we walked away with definitive answers to many of the questions, but at least they were in the open and students knew what various people considered within the bounds of acceptable or out of bounds.
For what its worth, here was my brief spiel on what scientific ethics in ecology covers. I first pulled up on the screen the ESA ethical code (nobody knew it existed). Then I said there are four issues (intentionally paralleled to crimes as a mnemonic device):
- Assault and trespassing – these are ways of doing harm in the real world and relate to permits and reviews: IACUC (animal care), IRB (human subjects), environmental impact, and research permits (or private land access)
- Theft – claiming someone else’s intellectual property (ideas, data, verbage) as your own. We talked about how ideas are floating in the air and how I am much less quick to assume somebody stole my idea when I see it in a paper than I used to be. But we also talked about how there are people I trust and don’t trust with new ideas. We talked about how data ownership relates to long-term (read multiple years, multiple students) data collection efforts. I talked about how as an editor I had seen multiple cases of outright plagiarism. We talked about what earns authorship.
- Fraud – presenting as true something that is not true (specifically misleading data or methods descriptions). We talked about some sensational cases, and some less well known cases within our own field. We talked about the ethics of removing outlier data points (great if you report, fireable offense if you don’t). We talked about how you would report fraud that you suspected. We talked about how honest to be in describing methods. We talked about what to do when you are a graduate student who thinks you’ve done the analyses correctly but you’re not sure and everybody else trusts you.
- Nepotism – we talked about how conflict of interest occurs in peer review of articles and grants and we talked about what our own personal guidelines were (and how choices range from refusing to review to disclosing but reviewing to not mentioning it). Not surprisingly this was of less concern to graduate students who have not been placed in this role too often but they were certainly interested to hear how it worked.
Again the key here is this was mostly student generated. Myself and the other adviser talked less than 30% of the time. My introduction was merely a 5 minute recap of the topics above – the details I gave above of what we talked about were things that came up naturally in conversation after I stopped my monologue. And the adviser’s roles were mostly to give examples of how this was a real-world issue from personal experience and to give our own opinions. But this was primarily a graduate student driven discussion.
So even if you think your lab has no problems – no especially if you think your lab has no problems – just do it. Go ahead and schedule a discussion of scientific ethics in your lab. You’ll be glad you did. I certainly was!
What do you think? Am I over emphasizing this? Am I just slow and you already have ethics discussions in your lab? How do you do it? As a student do you feel like you get enough training in this? As a student are you aware of where else besides your adviser you go to get guidance on this topic?