Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ethics Overload

My university has had some Issues over the years with ethical lapses of one sort or another, mostly involving biomedical faculty and researchers. Their occasional lapses result in an ever-changing set of university-wide requirements for ethics training for all faculty, researchers, and grad students.

I didn't mind this at first, and even volunteered to lead some of the ethics training sessions for grad students, as it was clear that there were some ethical issues that needed to be discussed with students: plagiarism of course, but also issues like authorship, data ownership, lab safety, etc. I also wanted the students to have access to resources for help with problems that might arise, or at least to know where to look for resources.

Faculty were initially required to attend 6 hours of workshops in ethics training. These workshops were completely useless. The people running them were not faculty, and had no experience with managing grants or people or labs or anything relevant to the topics being discussed. This requirement has gradually been expanded. There are some training activities we have to participate in every year, others every 3 years; some are online activities, some are in-person activities. All have been useless in a practical sense, and only have value in reminding us to take ethical issues seriously. If we don't get checked off for all the required ethics training activities, we aren't allowed to have grants.

If I were perfect and 100% in compliance with ethics requirements, I would have 4 different printers in my office, or I would have one printer with 4 different sets of ink cartridges and 4 sets of paper, and I would only print items for a particular project with that project's designated printer or printing materials. I would have all my office supplies designated by project as well, and would never use the X Project pen to write something related to the Y Project. I am not making up an obviously absurd situation -- this is what faculty were advised to do in one of the ethics sessions I attended. The person leading the session admitted under torture that she didn't really expect us to do this, but that she had to tell us to do it so that her responsibilities were covered and she wouldn't be to blame if we were busted by our funding agencies for using the wrong pen or printing supplies.

I am not a biologist; my scientific research does not involve human or animal subjects or their tissues or bodily fluids or thoughts or cultures or anything like that. Yet I am supposed to educate myself about policies regarding the Acquisition, Use, and Disposal of Human Bodies, just as an example. Is this a good use of my time? In fact (confession of ethical lapse!), I don't read those things. Instead, I peruse some of the nifty relevant things in the ethics training documents, like that I cannot use my NSF travel money to pay the difference between an economy airfare and a higher-class airfare. It wouldn't have occurred to me to do that, but I suppose there are those who gave it a try. So I check off the box that says I have read everything, but I do not print out the form to remind myself of all the important things I have learned. I don't know which printer to use.

Perhaps as more people acquire expertise with ethical issues in science and academia, the training activities can be better tailored for specific disciplines, but for now, these one-size-fits-all requirements and enforced workshops with talking head administrators seem to be generating widespread faculty contempt and loathing for ethics training requirements.

9 comments:

Steven said...

These requirements are completely out of control. These one-size-fits-all regulations have gotten bizarre. I'm a historian of Africa, and principles of informed consent developed for biomedical research really don't work. I'm supposed to have signed consent forms in English--from people who don't speak English, can't write, and have a justifiable suspicion of being made to sign documents they can't understand.

PonderingFool said...

Our university has imposed an online ordering system in order to comply with the "spending requirements" you mentioned (if pen A was paid for with grant 1 then it can not be used for grant 2, etc). The online ordering system allows us to split grants between different grants based on how the item is going to be used. Government is cracking down on the nickel and dimes here. Most of the expense of the grants does not go for supplies but rather salaries/benefits. The "fraud" they are going to find is minimal and not enough to justify the cost of doing the audits. Just makes more work for those in labs, gives the auditors something to do, more ethics training, and at our university it means we have a new VP & staff for the new VP. Got to love our overhead dollars at work. Guess we can look at it as more service.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Oh, the ones for grad students aren't any better. 'Don't make up data! Don't kill your human subjects, even though you don't have any!'. It's a bit like how Chemical Safety is required to tell us that we mustn't pour any solvent whatsoever down the drain (even ethanol) and our protocols must include a neutralization step at the end. Instead of turning the water on high and pouring it down slowly, like we always did in my old chem department.

The fuzzy things- data ownership, cherrypicking- that's what I wish our mandatory ethics class had covered.

Anonymous said...

Maybe a "common sense ethics class" would be more prudent. Can't they cover the important stuff, and ignore the Pen A was funded by project X and it's ink shall only write for that project? This sort of bureaucracy is why I dislike working for a University.

Doug Natelson said...

While it's high profile cases that raise these issues to prominence (e.g. Hwang and stem cells; Schon and condensed matter physics; Ninov and heavy elements), the real irony for me is this: does anyone think that the problem in those scandals was a lack of ethics training? I mean, does anyone actually think Hwang would have behaved differently if he had just had one more 6 hour course on scientific ethics? I don't want to downplay ethics and financial rules, but I don't think that training courses really affect the major offenders.

Lisa said...

At one of my summer undergrad research programs they had an actually interesting short ethics course. The professor talked about the big obvious examples but also about things that are more of a gray area--like what to do if you know or think that someone else is violating the ethics procedures--when is it your responsibility to step in and do something and what would you do? What makes people just look the other way? If more people had learned about things like this then maybe people like Hwang wouldn't get as far.

Global Girl said...

I've had to take online eithics training, which luckily wasn't as absurd as what FSP and others have described here. However, I do wish that the ethics of good scientific practice had been better addressed. I have been in a situation where, had I not done something very time-consuming and slightly annoying, I could have tailored the outcome of my data interpretation to fit what I wanted to see. All that I would have had to have done is not be as rigorous as I could have been. It would likely never have been spotted by a reviewer, because to see it you'd have to examine the raw data and ask yourself some questions about it. If I were caught, I could have just said "I didn't think it was worth the time to check, I was wrong, sorry." An intention to deceive would have been nearly impossible to prove. Sloppiness, yes, but not unethical behavior. I felt that it was my duty to check and be as objective as I could possibly be about the interpretation, but that's thanks to the high standards of my undergraduate institution, not ethics training.

PhD Mom said...

Yeah I had to take a 4 hour online working with human subjects class so that I could distribute a survey on best teaching practices to students in my class, gotta love that.

On the otherhand, I had an extremely good ethics training class as part of the requirements for my grad fellowship. We covered things like what happens if you suddenly can't reproduce data (retract paper or march on?). And what is self-plagarism (cite yourself)? How much can you copy from someone else before needing quotes in the citation (3 words, unless it is a generally recognized term or phrase in the field). We talked about massaging the data. (Don't exclude data from a study without an extremely good reason that any other reasonable scientist would accept). And we talked about altering data (how much image processing is okay before it is a doctored photo?). If only more classes could be like that one...and not rules about conducting research with prisoners (but then with students these days who knows...)

Anonymous said...

the Univ of California requires (among other things) 2 hours of sexual harassment training. the class is online and if you finish it in LESS than 2 hours, you need to scroll through the slides or whatever again to meet the 2 hour time since that is what is required by law. that was the worst class of this nature I have ever taken!