by Judith Curry
The National Academies has published a new edition of its book:
ON BEING A SCIENTIST
A GUIDE TO RESPONSIBLE CONDUCT IN RESEARCH
The scientific enterprise is built on a foundation of trust. Society trusts that scientific research results are an honest and accurate reflection of a researcher’s work. Researchers equally trust that their colleagues have gathered data carefully, have used appropriate analytic and statistical techniques, have reported their results accurately, and have treated the work of other researchers with respect. When this trust is misplaced and the professional standards of science are violated, researchers are not just personally affronted—they feel that the base of their profession has been undermined. This would impact the relationship between science and society.
On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Researchpresents an overview of the professional standards of science and explains why adherence to those standards is essential for continued scientific progress. In accordance with the previous editions published in 1989 and 1995, this guide provides an overview of professional standards in research. It further aims to highlight particular challenges the science community faces in the early 21st century. While directed primarily
oward graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty in an academic setting, this guide is useful for scientists at all stages in their education and careers, including those working for industry and government. Thus, the term “scientist” in the title and the text applies very broadly and includes all researchers engaged in the pursuit of new knowledge through investigations that apply scientific methods.
In the past, beginning researchers learned the standards of science largely by participating in research and by observing other researchers make decisions about the interpretation of data and the presentation of results and interactions with their colleagues. They discussed professional practices with their peers, with support staff, and with more experienced researchers. They learned how the broad ethical values we honor in everyday life apply in the context of science. During that learning process, research advisers and mentors in particular can have a profound effect on the professional and personal development of beginning researchers, as is discussed in this guide. This assimilation of professional standards through experience remains vitally important.
However, many beginning researchers are not learning enough about the standards of science through research experiences. Science nowadays is so fast-paced and complex that experienced researchers often do not have the time or opportunity to explain why a decision was made or an action taken. Institutional, local, state, and federal guidelines can be overwhelming, confusing, and ambiguous. And beginning researchers do not always get the best advice from others or witness exemplary behavior. Anonymous surveys show that many researchers admit to engaging in irresponsible practices or have witnessed others doing so.1
Furthermore, changes within science have complicated efforts to ensure that every researcher has a solid grounding in the professional codes of science. Though support for research has grown substantially in recent years, exciting opportunities have continued to multiply faster than resources, and the resulting disparity between opportunities and resources has further reduced the time available to researchers to discuss professional standards. As research has become more interdisciplinary and multinational, it has become more difficult to ensure that communication among the members of a research project is sufficient. Increased ties among academic, industrial, and governmental researchers have strengthened research but have also increased the potential for conflicts. And the rapid advance of technology—including digital communications technologies—has created a wealth of new capabilities and new challenges.
In this changing environment of the early 21st century, a short guide like On Being a Scientist can provide only an introduction to the responsible conduct of research. Readers are thus encouraged to use the “Additional Resources” section of this guide, which lists many valuable publications, Web sites, and other materials on scientific ethics and professional standards, to find further material that explores this discourse. The challenges posed particularly by the increasing number of global and multinational ties within the science community will be further addressed in a subsequent publication of the National Research Council.
Established researchers have a special responsibility in upholding and promulgating high standards in science. They should serve as role models for their students and for fellow researchers, and they should exemplify responsible practices in their teaching and their conversations with others. They have a professional obligation to create positive research environments and to respond to concerns about irresponsible behaviors. Established researchers can themselves gain a new appreciation for the importance of professional standards by thinking about the topics presented in this guide and by discussing those topics with their research groups and students. In this way, they help to maintain the foundations of the scientific enterprise and its reputation with society.