Lively Discussion on Scientific Ethics in Research and Publications

By Mary Beth Genter-Mills posted 03-25-2014 17:18


Drs. Bill Brock and Bill Mattes and I were joined by Paul Zigas, MS, JD, for a lively Education-Career Development session entitled “Scientific Ethics in Research and Publications.”

The Monday afternoon session led off with Dr. Brock, a top-notch scientist and wine collector, presenting an overview of scientific misconduct in general, featuring an example of misconduct by a university researcher whose actions led to the retraction of a number of published papers on resveratrol, a component of red wine. We learned that retractions are on the rise and also that the first known instance of a manuscript retraction dates back to the 1800s!

Attorney Zigas gave an informative session on responsible conduct of research, emphasizing the requirement for ethics training for students and faculty at institutions receiving research federal research funding, e.g. from NIH or NSF. In reflecting on his comments about these training requirements, I wondered if we in academia are doing enough—it’s fair to say that we all have a seminar series dealing with these issues, but I wonder if the one-on-one and small group discussions are given the appropriate attention.

Authorship was the topic of Dr. Mattes talk and who knew that we’ve probably all been inappropriately included as an author on a manuscript—the bar for inclusion as an author on a manuscript is considerably higher than many participants in the session knew. We also learned that those who do not qualify to be authors on papers can be listed in the acknowledgement section, which is not news, but what was new to me was the fact that we should seek permission to include someone’s name in the acknowledgement section.

And then, the all-important issue of the order in which authors was listed was discussed. The paradigm with which many of us are familiar—perhaps a student as the first author on his dissertation work, with other contributors listed next, with the mentor/lab PI as the last author—is only one of many possible scenarios. Other possibilities include rank ordering the presentations by author contributions—i.e. the author with the greatest contribution would be the first author and so forth. Interestingly, in the non-biomedical sciences, such as physics, it is common practice to list authors in alphabetical order, which is not a bad approach in situations such as the example presented, which had more than 11,000 authors! (1)

My contribution to the afternoon was a discussion of misconduct in publishing, including a discussion of the many guises that this misconduct can take. I tried to emphasize that, not only is misconduct in publishing a disgrace, it can have widespread and unforeseen consequences as far-reaching as impacts on patient care. I also presented examples of misconduct related to plagiarism and republishing data, both with one’s own data, as well as that of others. Scenarios of misconduct by editors was also presented, including examples of editors who attempt to improve their journal’s impact factors by requiring citation of other manuscripts published in his journal in revised manuscripts submitted to his journal.

In the discussion that ensued, questions were raised around how and when to discuss authorship issues, among other topics. Dr. Brock emphasized the utility of the NAS publication entitled “On Being a Scientist—A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research” (2) as a basis to begin a discussion on the topics covered in this session. For those who missed the session and would like to view it, the session was recorded and will be available on the SOT website approximately two weeks after the meeting.

(1) Aad G, Abajyan T, Abbott B,  …11,600 other authors…..Zur Nedden M, Zutshi V, Zwalinski L Search for dark matter candidates and large extra dimensions in events with a photon and missing transverse momentum in pp collision data at sqrt[s]=7 TeV with the ATLAS detector. Phys Rev Lett. 2013 Jan 4;110(1):011802. Epub 2013 Jan 3.

(2) On Being a Scientist—A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research, 3rd edition. The National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2009;

Other references available upon request.