Ethics in research question

Michael Holloway mhollowa at
Mon Aug 16 20:06:20 EST 1993

Ellen Wijsman writes:
>Standards of behavior in science (and I suppose any field) are set in part
>by the actions of respected people in the field, as well as by their
>responses to behaviors by others who are also in the field.  Therefore, IF
>the students acted unethically, if the professor condones such behavior by
>publishing the material or presenting it at a meeting, the professor's
>behavior is just as, if not more, unethical than the students' behavior.

Doesn't this then imply that cut-throat competition is being 
ethically sanctioned?  Behavior that is unethical from the point of 
view of collegiality would be ethical from the point of view of the 
interests of the large, successful lab.  Competition is being 
encouraged, isn't it?  I've heard it said that competition is a 
desirable thing in research, producing a better product.  The people 
who do it better and faster SHOULD get the support. 

I don't believe that the circumstances outlined in the original 
message clearly indicates unethical behavior.  What I mean is, in so 
far as ethical behavior is understood and agreed upon within the 
peer group, there is no indication that something unethical took 
place.  The advisor presented results in a public forum and the 
graduate student presented results on a poster at a public meeting.  
There was never any expectation of confidentiality.  I'm sorry if my 
explaination of the scenario wasn't clear, but the graduate 
student's work was not directly connected to the collaboration the 
advisor was trying to enter into with the big lab.  Because these 
results represented work-in-progress there was the naive expectation 
that the small lab had "staked" its territory and would be able to 
proceed at a reasonable pace to finally publish the observations.  
This would have been true if the ethics involved valued collegiality 
over competition.  Just based on empirical observation of the real 
world, this does not seem to be the case.

>I see nothing wrong (in principle) with a
>laboratory keeping an eye on results obtained by other groups & following
>the most promising leads, as long as the information about the results is
>obtained and used in an ethical fashion.

But that's the problem: how do you define "obtained and used in an 
ethical fashion"?  Is using other's unpublished observations 
unethical only when the data is divulged with an expectation of 
confidentiality, as in a grant application?  

What I hear you saying is that you would prefer to work in a field 
where all the workers clearly understood that actions which are 
harmful to the interests of other workers in the field are actions 
that are unethical.  So would I.  Is that what we have?  I don't 
think so.

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