Ethical Considerations in Graduate Work

I find the conversation of ethics in research incredibly interesting.  My American educational context is such that I have been taught from a very young age what is and is not acceptable with regard to research methodology.  While I’ve had these principles drilled into me and have taken them for process and the way things are, there are many people who have been raised, trained, and brought up in a variety of systems that do not correlate.

While living and working abroad in 2009 I made friends with several local university students. I befriended in one student in particular who had a very different view on ethics with regard to academics than I had ever experienced.  He relayed story after story about how academic success was a community effort in his country, and all means necessary were employed to advance individuals through schooling.  This included was not limited to test banks, unauthorized cohort-based work, and other forms of ‘illegal’ help.  We had many conversations about the ethics around this and he said that it was 100% acceptable because everyone does it and everyone is competing to get ahead but regardless of who gets ahead and who doesn’t- his community still advances.  This was a fascinating concept to me, especially after confirming his story with other local friends and they didn’t bat an eye.  While they were unsurprised about his methods, they did frown on them somewhat and did discuss how it tarnished their own honest work-especially in the international sphere.  It was unclear if they were saying this to me as an American or held this view regardless.

Upon returning to the US for graduate school, I paid particularly close attention to the messaging regarding what was and was not legal here at Virginia Tech. I was impressed at the lengths taken to explain VT’s Honor Code and the systems in place to uphold it.  I spent time discussing this with friends and colleagues- both American and international- and found that my experience abroad was not uncommon and that definitions of ethics varied between many cultural contexts.

 

 

The fact that the Office of Research Integrity website existed shouldn’t have been news to me.  Despite this fact, it was fascinating to see such a public forum for announcing researchers’ ethical transgressions.  At first I was affronted by the concept but I quickly warmed to it as a consequence of ethical misconduct.

I read many of the cases and many did not make much sense to me with regard to their subject matter, but what was clear across each was the falsification of data. In one such study, “the fabricated data, falsified methodology, and false claims based on fabricated and falsified data were reported in two NIEHS, NIH, grant applications, two publications, a poster,” and several manuscript submissions. This case stated that the researcher, Mona Thiruchelvam “provided to the institution corrupted data files as the data for stereological cell counts of nigrostriatal neurons in brains of several mice and rats by copying a single data file from a previous experiment and renaming the copies to fit the description of 13 new experiments composed of 293 data files when stereological data collection was never performed for the questioned research” (https://ori.hhs.gov/content/case-summary-thiruchelvam-mona). This is fascinating to me- both that people believe that these actions are acceptable, but more so I cannot fathom how these falsifications are found out in the first place. I am interested to know the process and the evidence presented to support the falsification accusation.

While I would never take such egregiously unethical actions to complete my work, other actions are much easier to imagine doing.  Recently I was speaking with a friend who helps adjudicate honor code violations here on campus.  She and I discussed the ethical implications of submitting journal entries and blog posts such as these for more than one course, when each has similar requirements.  I had not considered submitting the same posts, but had considered writing about the same topics as I often read interested articles in each course and enjoy researching and writing about these topics from each course’s view points. She determined that similar submissions would be fine as long as they weren’t identical and each responded to the specific course’s assignment.

It was an interesting conversation, nonetheless, as I can see how students, particularly international students, may question the finer points of these distinctions.

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