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New Edition of ’On Being a Scientist’ Offers Early-Career Researchers Guidance on Conducting Research Responsibly, Avoiding Misconduct


WASHINGTON -- Cases of clear scientific misconduct have made headlines in recent years, among them the fabrication of data by a team of stem-cell researchers at Seoul National University and the fraudulent manipulation of photos submitted to the Journal of Cell Biology. Though obvious violations of professional standards may be uncommon, less-dramatic ethical questions confront many scientists in the course of a career: How should credit for a discovery be allocated among a team of researchers? How should a scientist respond if he discovers errors -- his own or others’ -- in a published analysis? And how can a researcher recognize when a conflict of interest could bias the results of a study she hopes to undertake?

These and other questions are explored in the third edition of On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research, new from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. The volume offers researchers -- particularly early-career scientists and their mentors -- guidance on how to conduct research responsibly, avoid misconduct such as fabrication and plagiarism, and think about how to respond in complex ethical situations.

“This updated edition of ‘On Being a Scientist’ will be an important catalyst of discussions among students and their professors, academic and industrial scientists and engineers, managers, administrators and policymakers alike,” said Carolyn Bertozzi, chair of the committee that wrote the report, professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology, University of California, and director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We hope that this resource will inspire readers to explore the issues in an open forum and influence the conduct of science worldwide in a very positive way.”

The report discusses recent real-world instances of misconduct, as well as hypothetical case studies to help scientists think about principles that should guide decision making. For example, one case study explores the situation of a researcher who discovers a coding error in a program used to model the spread of infections in populations -- a model that has informed two of the researchers’ published papers. The error doesn’t change the average time it takes infections to spread, but it does increase the amount of uncertainty in the model’s results. Questions included in the case study explore the obligations the researchers owe their professional colleagues in terms of correcting the published record, and whether there are options beyond publishing a formal correction.

The book’s intent is not to state definite conclusions about what should be done in particular situations, said the authoring committee, but rather to explore the reasons for ethical choices and to foster discussion in orientations, graduate seminars, and informal meetings. “[M]any beginning researchers are not learning enough about the standards of science through research experiences,” noted the presidents of the three academies in the book’s preface.

Among the topics addressed are the responsibilities of advisers and their advisees, appropriate ways to share research results, the treatment of people and animals involved in studies, and mistakes and negligence in research. Also included is an extensive list of books and articles for further reading on responsible conduct in science.

The report was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.


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