Monday, October 4, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

When we start out in science, there are many things that will influence our careers.  We are aware of all the obvious technical skills that must be mastered in order to succeed in our particular science field, but less aware of other challenges that may be our biggest obstacles.  In the previous post, I talked about social anxiety and how this might greatly affect one's ability to function professionally.  

Another area that we don't think about much in the beginning and may be neglected in academic programs is ethics (and dealing with unethical people).

In every profession, there are people who try to get ahead by engaging in unethical behavior.  This type of behavior seems to be exacerbated in situations where competition is intense.  When resources are scarce or where there are "territorial" issues, people who cannot prevail based on their skills may resort to under-handed measures.  My sense is that there are only a small number of "true sharks" in science fields--people who have no scruples and will stop at nothing to get what they want.  They exist, but do not predominate.  I don't think scientists are more ethical than the average person, just that the field does not particularly attract people who are unethical.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are people who cannot be tempted under any circumstance to make an unethical decision.  Perhaps more common are those people who under normal circumstances would not do anything unethical, but when put under pressure will turn into sharks, i.e., they are "latent sharks".  The breaking point obviously varies from person to person and with the situation.  

Most of us tend to focus on the "true sharks" and what harm they might do to us and our careers.  However, it's possible that the "latent sharks", who are more abundant, may be more likely to harm us.  Or possibly the ethical choices we make ourselves, if wrong, can do far more damage to us than any deliberate act by someone else.  You may be thinking that you would always know the right thing to do and would not make an ethical mistake, but are you sure?

That shark threatening your well-being may not be a person, but an ethical dilemma.

When we start out in our careers, we often don't realize the difficult ethical choices that we may face as scientists.  I'm not talking here about falsifying data or other obviously fraudulent actions that normal people recognize as being wrong.  We all know these are not only unethical, but absolutely not tolerated in science.  No, I'm talking about situations that scientists (and other professionals) face, but in which some people might find it difficult (under pressure) to do the right thing.  Perhaps even more challenging are those situations in which the correct response is not always clear. 

Here are a few examples to get us thinking about these ideas:

1.  Mary is an assistant professor who receives a research proposal for review that focuses on the exact same questions she is currently pursuing.  The proposal describes a unique approach that is far superior to what she has been using in her own project and addresses a key issue that has been a stumbling block for her.  Imagine further that she has not been as successful as she needs to be and will not get tenure unless she publishes more and gets a decent sized grant--soon.  She's already invested all her time and start-up funds on this research question, and it's too late to start over.  Solving her methodological problem would clear the way for her research to take off.  Let's further say that the proposal author already has a lot of funding (information revealed in the current and pending support).  Mary rationalizes that she would have eventually come up with this technique and decides to use it in her own research.  She also decides that the proposal author already has had more than his share of funding and won't be hurt if he doesn't get this grant. She gives it a "good", rather than "excellent" score, knowing that this will probably sink it and perhaps give her some time to implement the new approach.

Would you find it difficult, if you were in Mary's situation, to do the right thing?  Is taking another scientist's ideas a form of plagiarism? Was there ever any possibility that Mary could have provided an unbiased review of this proposal?  What, if any, are the possible negative repercussions of Mary's actions (for her)?

2.  Here's a variation on first example.  Cynthia is an ambitious post-doc having a problem with one of her laboratory techniques.  She's been trying for weeks to resolve this, but has been unsuccessful.  She is at her wit's end and finally goes to her PI to ask for help.  After listening to her tale of woe, he tells Cynthia not to worry--that he'll have a solution for her tomorrow.  The next day, she finds a manuscript on her desk with a note from the PI.  It says, "Check out the methods has the solution to your problem.  However, don't make a copy of this or give it to anyone else.  Also, don't tell anyone that I gave this to you." She tries the method described in the paper and lo and behold, it works! When she excitedly reports this to her PI, she says, "I've scoured the literature and can find no mention of this technique.  Where did you get this paper?" The PI smiles mysteriously and says, "I've got dozens of them in my files."

Cynthia's PI was trying to help her by giving her this method, but is what he did unethical?  What if he won't tell her the source (author) of the paper?  If she uses this method and describes it in her paper without acknowledging the source, is this unethical?  What might happen to the two of them if others find out?

3.  Here's a very different dilemma. Beth is an assistant professor and has an undergraduate student worker who is discovered to have been falsifying his time sheets.  Let's say that Beth's lab technician has reported this to her.  Beth contacts the head of student affairs for guidance.  She is told that the student's actions, if guilty, are considered by the university to be a crime and will be turned over to the campus police; the student will also be expelled.  Let's say Beth is reasonably certain that at least a portion of the time he claimed has been falsified.  Reporting this student will lead to his possible arrest and prosecution and definitely terminate his academic pursuit.  She is hesitant to cause this student to be arrested and expelled.  What if she just fires the student, but does not report him to authorities?  Is that ethical or unethical? What would you do?

One of the above examples is real, the others are fiction.  In the next post, I'll describe the outcome of the real example and try to explain what might happen in the fictional scenarios.

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