STEM Modules:

Ethical Dimensions of STEM Research

By Nancy Tuana and Thomas Richard

Introduction to the Module

In this module, you will hear from Dr. Nancy Tuana, Director of the Rock Ethics Institute and Professor of Philosophy at the Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Thomas Richard, Director of the Penn State Institutes for Energy and the Environment and Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University. Drs. Tuana and Richard will present an introduction to the ethical dimensions of STEM research, including research integrity, embedded ethics, and broader impacts. You will have opportunities to test your knowledge as we go.

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. List the ethical dimensions of STEM research
  2. List examples and questions one should ask one’s self in the course of conducting research for each dimension
  3. Identify ethical dimensions present in STEM research scenarios

Introduction to the Ethical Dimensions of STEM Research

Working with scientists and engineers has helped us appreciate the relevance of ethics to many aspects of the work done by STEM researchers. This video provides an introduction to a broader model of the ethical dimensions of research in STEM fields, including research ethics, broader impacts, and embedded ethics.

Research Integrity

What do we mean by “Research Integrity”? 

There are the ethical considerations of how to proceed in the course of conducting research in science and engineering. These concepts are termed “research integrity.” The National Institutes for Health, for example, refers to research integrity as including the following:  

  • the use of honest and verifiable methods in proposing, performing, and evaluating research 
  • reporting research results with particular attention to adherence to rules, regulations, guidelines, and 
  • following commonly accepted professional codes or norms. 

Our conception of Research Integrity is consistent with the conception of Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) set forth by the National Office of Research Integrity (ORI). In The ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of ResearchNicholas Steneck explains that: 

“…expectations for the responsible conduct of research are complex and not always well defined… Some responsible practices are defined through law and institutional policies that must be followed. Others are set out in non-binding codes and guidelines that should be followed. Still other responsible practices are commonly accepted by most researchers but not written down. Instead, they are transmitted informally through mentoring, based on the understandings and values of each mentor.”

For this reason, understanding what is involved in conducting research responsibly is an important component of research integrity.

Many universities and research organizations now require RCR training.  Research misconduct is one important domain of RCR training.

Of all of the areas in research integrity, research misconduct may be the most familiar. Research misconduct, namely, fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, involve research choices made by a scientist or engineer where the act of wrongdoing is often the most clear and in which there is little ethical ambiguity. One can certainly fabricate or falsify more or less data, or plagiarize a little or a lot, but just the mere fact of doing so makes the action a violation of the basic ethical expectation of responsible research.  

The ORI defines Research Misconduct as follows: 

Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. 

  • Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them. 
  • Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record. 
  • Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. 
  • Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion. 

Plenty of examples of research misconduct exist.  The following pages discuss two from different disciplines that may be familiar to you.

Link between autism and vaccines  

The work of Andrew Wakefield, which initially posited a link between autism and vaccines, was found to contain falsified research data.  This work has had drastic implications, including the promotion of anti-vaccine communities, which may have in turn caused the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases.  Here is a timeline of the case. This is the original paper. 

Organic Semiconductors 

While at Bell Labs, Jan Hendrik Schön produced cutting-edge research on organic semiconductors at a rapid rate.  When several scientists in the community raised questions about the validity of his data, a committee was convened, and according to an article in the New York Times, they found that “that data in the disputed research, published between 1998 and 2001, had been improperly manipulated, even fabricated, confirming suspicions raised by outside scientists in May. The committee placed the blame for the deceit on one Bell Labs scientist, Dr. J. Hendrik Schön.”  Furthermore, according to the same article, “Dr. Schön told the committee he had deleted almost all of the original data files because his computer lacked hard disk space to store the files. He said he had no laboratory notebooks. Dr. Schön also could not reproduce any of the findings for the committee.”  If you are interested in further details of the Schön case, we recommend Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World by Eugenie Samuel Reich. 

Grey Areas of Research Misconduct 

Even in the domain of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, there are some grey areas in which the actions are questionable, yet the wrongness of the activity is not clear-cut. Consider the case where a faculty member uses text from a paper he or she has co-authored with a graduate student in a publication or a grant application, but does not ask the student’s permission to do so. It might even be the case that the faculty member gave the student appropriate authorship credit. But if we use another person’s work in another venue, are we obligated to first get that person’s permission to do so? What if the text cited could lead to others “scooping” the graduate student’s insights before she or he is able to publish the results of the research?  

These grey areas have been identified by some as “Questionable Research Practices.”  The Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie (VIB), a life sciences research institute located in Flanders, Belgium lists the following examples of Questionable Research Practices: 

  • Neglecting negative outcomes 
  • Using inappropriate statistics to support one’s hypothesis 
  • Inappropriate research design 
  • Leaving out relevant controls 
  • Inappropriate re-use of controls 
  • Removal of ‘outliers’ 
  • Conscious bias 
  • Unethical experimentation 
  • Peer review abuse 

We know it is wrong to use fake data or steal another’s ideas and claim them to be their own. But what about more complex issues that are beyond blatant research misconduct? 

Responsible Conduct of Research: Beyond Research Misconduct 

RCR training involves recognition not only of violations of research integrity, such as research misconduct due to falsification or fabrication of data and plagiarism, but also the knowledge and values needed to respond to the grey areas of research integrity.  You can read more about each of these areas of research integrity in The ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research.