Ethics and Research Integrity

Ethics, at the first glance, is a really big and general word. The definition of “ethics” by Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior”. The professional ethics we covered during the class should be categorized into “Applied Ethics”, such as political ethics, business ethics, and publication ethics. As young scholars, we PhD students should always keep the professional ethics in mind. The most important contents in AAUP-defined professional ethics, in my point of view, are to “seek and state the truth as they (we) see it” and to “exercise critical selfdiscipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge” while practicing “intellectual honesty”. With the guidance of professional ethics, we should follow this code of conduct and always do the right thing. However, as the research field goes highly competitive for limited research funds and the gradual increase of tenure-track position standard, some scholars, especially younger PhD students, are affected by perverse incentives, e.g. citation- and publication-focused evaluation system, and stray from ethical conduct. As a result, academic misconducts, biased research behavior and obscured research responsibilities is commonly seen nowadays. These scholars falsely believe that, by trading their research integrity, they can find a short cut to success, outcompete their peers, and stand out from the crowd. Temperorily they achieve much more than they actually deserve, and may enjoy enormous fame and spotlight. Once all the truth are found out, they will fall heavily from everything to nothing. Afterall, what goes around comes around.

One research misconduct case I will analyze today happens in the field of Life Sciences. The research scholar named Kaushik Deb from University of Missouri-Columbia  recklessly fabricated and falsified data reported in several papers submitted to Science and Nature. The major research misconduct include photomanipulating images and fabricating non-existing data to support the proposed theory and hypothesis in the scientific paper. In the field of life sciences, tedious research work usually pales the daily life with non-positive results. Researchers have to kill numerous mice and analyze hundreds of embryos on weekly basis, and often the case, negative results are usually obtained resulted from sample contamination and/or illogical experiment design as well as flawed operation steps. By using professional photo software, Dr. Deb obtained the perfect research results in consistent with the proposed hypothesis, leading to several publications on highly impacted journals. Ironically, the research will get more exposed if published on good journals, and peers will be more suspicious if reported phenomenon or data cannot be repeated in their own lab. Through careful investigation of Office of Research Integrity (ORI), all the manipulated results and images by Dr. Deb were revealed, and proper penalties has been implemented. It is such a shame that a well-educated PhD could perform unethically, and once in a while these cases always get the academia into deep thinking. Should we develop a more intellectual and self-adapted evaluation system to relieve the current intense competition based on quantitative metrics (i.e. impact factor, h-index)? Do academia need to foster so many PhDs to perform easy tasks that even an undergrads can do? On the individual perspective, we always remember the professional ethics and conduct research step by step. All our efforts will eventually pay off one way or another.

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