Post #2 (Ethics) ORI's The Lab (K Culbertson)

Post #2 (Ethics) ORI’s The Lab (K Culbertson)

The Lab is a project of the Office of Research Integrity that allows users to assume the role of several different ‘players’ in a scenario developed around the issue of research integrity. Participants have an opportunity to “practice making the choices that will advance the integrity and research.” There are four storylines accessible: that of the Primary Investigator, Dr. Aaron Hutchins, Beth Ridgely, the Research Integrity Officer; Hardik Rao, a Post-Doc in the lab; and Kim Park a PhD student on the research team. At this point, I have followed Kim Park’s story line through to the end.

Kim is confronted with the issue of a more senior colleague (another Post-Doc) presenting her with a consent form for an article he is submitting that includes her as a co-author and some of her data. She has never seen, or heard about, the article before. He tells her that the form needs to be turned in by the end of the day and even attempts to appeal to her with a [condescending] personal comment in order to get her to sign. Her dilemma is framed by the narrator generally, but the viewer is left to make a decision largely based on the interaction in the video. The choices are clearly presented, but without much commentary: “tell him you need to read it” (the article) or sign the consent.

If the viewer chooses the first option, the video proceeds and presents several more scenarios which require choices on Kim’s part.  If the viewer chooses “just sign” the following screen pops up and the narrator provides verbal commentary as well.

Choosing ‘just sign it’ results in a clear and concise statement of the ethical decision involved and the right choice.

The concept of the video scenarios is definitely a current and useful pedagogical tool. Clearly effort was put into the scenario, scripts and character development to ensure it parallels a common one found in most university settings. And, while the script has momentary issues with the language used and characterizations of thoughts, it does a fairly good job of incorporating the cultural aspects of Kim’s character.

What it doesn’t do so well is address a number of underlying issues surrounding this particular scenario – and in the lack of attention creates some rather dangerous assumptions that could easily derail the intended outcome: guiding viewers to make ethically sound decisions. A couple of examples will help to illustrate this point more clearly.

In a previous video segment, we learn that Kim and Greg (the post-doc) have had a romantic relationship, and Kim’s colleague Dave believes she still harbors some affection for him. The fact that Greg and Kim engaged in a personal relationship is never addressed as being a significant factor in Greg’s attempt to seek her compliance with his intent: to publish an article.

Later, Kim discusses the issue with her mother who also addresses some relevant and important cultural norms (not rocking the boat), but there is no discussion of how this attitude may or may not affect the decision of a PhD student in the course of her work. Additionally, the issue of Kim being the only woman in this particular lab is never addressed either – but one that likely has more deep seeded consequences in light of the ethical dilemma she is face with.

Making ethical decisions is never easy. It can seem clear-cut if one has had a certain amount of experience – including ones with negative outcomes – to learn from and broaden one’s perspective. They are often complex scenarios that require examining one’s values, intentions and possible outcomes.  In my experience, the best decisions are often informed by others because of their distance from the issue at-hand, their likely different perspective and their relevance in the ‘deciders’ life/career.

Scientists, by practice, are used to boiling the unknown down to a simple question, but ethical decisions often have various facets that must be examined, weighed and assessed in the context of what fits the deliberators personal values, and how the environmental values are portrayed. When there are underlying issues, such as personal relationships, that are not acknowledged and factored into an assessment many issues can seem more cut and dry than they really are.

Another big issue with the way The Lab is portrayed is that it does not seem to address the viewer’s underlying assumptions, perceptions and even mis-perceptions. For instance, if a viewer has only ever been exposed to workplace settings where women’s capabilities and contributions are marginalized (as this video portrays) the outcome may be very different from someone who has no experience with this form of discrimination. If the outcome is truly to guide viewers through an analysis of the issue relative to their own values, then it would benefit from addressing the underlying perceptions and misconceptions directly.

If you watched any of the other character scenarios, I welcome your comments below.


Other notable reading around the topic of ethics:

Intentional and Ethical Scholar Activism


“The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) oversees and directs Public Health Service (PHS) research integrity activities on behalf of the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the exception of the regulatory research integrity activities of the Food and Drug Administration.”