Ethics in research question

wijsman at wijsman at
Mon Aug 16 23:58:33 EST 1993

Michael Holloway writes:
(repeated text deleted)
> 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. 
Competition, even cut-throat competition, does not require theft, lying, or
other similar behaviors.  The end point (product) does not justify
(ethically) the means by which the goal is acheived.  Sports, music or
drama auditions, commercial enterprises and many other events in life are
also intensely competitive, but there are behaviors which are considered to
be unethical in any such areas, with penalties to boot if unethical
behavior is discovered.  The desire for personal/lab gain is not sufficient
to guarantee or define ethical behavior.  My point is that ethical behavior
is not defined on an absolute scale, but is tempered/defined by the
*general* mores in the field.  What is ethical in one field or time may
fall into a grey zone or may be unethical in another.  This does not imply
that the behavior of *one* lab determines what is ethical behavior!  I
think competition IS beneficial, at least to some degree (sure keeps you
working late nights if you think the competition is on your tail!) but
competition implies using what you have yourself, not something which you
claim is yours but which you obtain from someone else without their
knowledge or credit, and not by depriving someone else of something they
are due (for example, knowingly sending the wrong clone to a
"collaborator", or downgrading a direct competitor in a grant review).
(stuff deleted)
> 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  Is using other's unpublished observations 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?  
There are lots of different ways of using information which is obtained
through mechanisms other than publications.  Unethical use of unpublished
observations need not occur only in situations where there is a clear
expectation of confidentiality, such as that expected of reviewers.  If a
scientists gives a talk (in particular a public talk, such as a talk at a
different university - publish means to make public & does not necessarily
mean that a written document must be produced) it is perfectly reasonable
that information derived from the talk can be used in *other* experiments
by the listeners.  However, this does not apply to a repeat of the *same*,
or essentially the same, experiment under the guise of independent
research.  The problem with the situation (as posed originally) is that the
big lab apparently published the small lab's experiment *as if* it was
independently derived *after* hearing the experiment.  The publication thus
implies an independently derived idea, which was false (i.e., a lie).  This
is why the behavior was unethical.
One behavior which we are expected to adhere to as scientists, is to
appropriately cite relevant papers in the field in our publications.  If
this were only necessary as supporting evidence, then we would not need to
have huge lists of references for experiments/observations which are
essentially confirmed multiple times over.  However, we are expected to
cite all these references because we must give credit to ideas/experiments
which came before ours.  The same goes for work presented orally - we have
an *ethical* responsibility to acknowledge this, and failure to do so
constitutes unethical behavior since we are thus implying that the ideas we
put forth are our own, when, in fact, they are supported/suggested by the
work of others.
> 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.
Of course, wouldn't we all like to work in a utopia!  But seriously, the
original post was a request for a discussion on ethics and possible
ramifications on the fate of scientific progress, which isn't a bad idea at
all.  I think all of us know colleagues who we feel are thoroughly ethical
- they are the ones we are most likely to talk to about our work in
progress. I have to say that in both my graduate and postdoctoral years I
was fortunate to work for two extraordinarily ethical scientists; they are
also extremely well known and respected in their fields.  Perhaps they were
ethical because they were so good that they felt no need for other (lesser)
behaviors.  However, I have always had the suspicion that part of their
success stories lay in the incredible willingness that visitors, former
graduate students, and all sorts of other people had to exchange and
discuss information/projects without fear of being scooped.

Ellen Wijsman
Div of Medical Genetics, RG-25
and Dept of Biostatistics
University of Washington
Seattle, WA   98195
wijsman at

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