National Postdoc Appreciation Week Blog: Doing What's Right Even if No One's Watching


By Rachel Woodson posted 09-18-2012 10:32


In recognition of National Postdoc Appreciation Week, the SOT Postdoctoral Assembly is publishing a series of blog articles throughout the week written by postdocs and former postdocs reflecting their experiences and thoughts about being a postdoctoral scholar. Here is the first in the series by Alicia Timme-Laragy. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the Biology Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where she uses small fish models to study how chemicals that cause oxidative stress disrupt embryonic development. Dr. Timme-Laragy will be starting as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2013.

Doing What's Right Even if No One's Watching

I have probably spent way too much time thinking about what postdoc-related topic to blog about here. The most obvious thing for me would be work-life balance, as I have two young children, both of whom I have had during my postdoc. But with the National Postdoctoral Association recently publishing on this topic pretty extensively, that feels a bit redundant. I could recount the serendipitous events that have helped to shape my career, but that would probably not be terribly interesting to anyone but my mother.

Instead, I think I will use this space to reflect on something required of all of us postdocs and students in science: training in the responsible conduct of research (RCR). Why must we be subjected to inane online quizzes, workshops that detract from our time spent in the lab, and reiterate points that we already know to begin with (uh, don’t fabricate data? Duh). I was once one of those grumblers huddling at the back table in the room rolling their eyes.

I have a very different perspective now.

RCR is still something that takes away from my time in the lab, but now it is time well spent. So I’d like to tell you why I think RCR training is important, and share my two cents about how I think it can be improved. This opinion has been shaped by the emphasis on RCR training I received during grad school, the RCR education I’ve been able to participate in and teach as a postdoc, and the training I received from the Office of Research Integrity upon receiving a Research Integrity Ambassador Award last year.

For those of you who are tuning out right now, I’ll place my punch-line here: I think RCR training should be required of everyone, not just students and postdocs. Yes, PIs included. And check out this RCR training tool. Now keep reading.

Ok, so why do I think RCR is important? Because when my mother tells her friends that her daughter is a scientist, I want them to react with respect, not with some version of a slimy lawyer joke mutated to make fun of scientists. The fact is the majority of research we conduct is funded by taxpayers. As publically-funded scientists, we have a responsibility and obligation not only to conduct and report the research we are entrusted to do, but also to do so with the utmost and unimpeachable integrity. We are not partisan, not activists; we do our best to make observations and interpret data that in turn stand to benefit the public’s health and well-being. Infringing on this trust by scientific misconduct erodes confidence in the entire profession and could jeopardize the support of the investment in public research.

How do we ensure that we maintain the public trust? First, we decide what behaviors are acceptable (responsible conduct of research) and unacceptable (misconduct). However, consider that society at large has agreed that lying, cheating, and stealing are wrong—but these still occur. So clearly, agreeing on a set of common values is not enough. I’m not going to focus on the role that the justice system or enforcement system has here; just on the communication of what is ethical behavior. One way that a diverse society instills and regularly reinforces its values is through periodic group meetings (e.g., religious organizations or support groups), coming together to reaffirm societal values and an acceptable code of conduct. I see RCR education serving a parallel purpose among scientists. Which is why I find it puzzling that RCR is only required of trainees. Why wouldn’t we want to include the lab-leaders in this?  Why not the technicians? Certainly there are exceptions where PIs participate in educating the trainees at RCR workshops or at informal lab meetings, but to me, it just doesn’t make sense as to why only postdocs and students are required to be trained in the responsible conduct of research. Shouldn’t everybody? What do you think?

Those of you who are still reading this might be rolling your eyes at this. But, maybe if the RCR experience improved, there would be more interest in this. Many RCR workshops that I’ve participated in have focused on examining unethical situations in which the infraction is very clear, and the solution is similarly apparent; it’s too easy. In real life, rarely is an event framed in this way, or even pointed out as “hey, this might not be right, pay attention to this!” Not only do we need to learn what is acceptable scientific conduct (particularly around the blurry edges—e.g., what is paraphrasing vs. plagiarism? Where do you draw the line?), but we need to internalize this and practice recognizing ethical dilemmas. And we need to learn about the actions that can and should be taken to (ideally) prevent problems, and what to do if you find one.

To wrap this up, I would like to recommend a fantastic training tool. The Office of Research Integrity has created an interactive training video on RCR called “The Lab.” It’s kind of like an updated version of those paperback books I remember reading in elementary school where if you decide to do X then go to page 176 and you win, but if you decide Z then go to page 188 and you have an alternate ending and wind up falling into a bottomless pit. The decision points in the video are well placed and the consequences sometimes unexpected, bringing in angles that at least for me, were surprising. In the video, you have a chance to be put into the mindset of a busy member or head of a lab, including the professional and personal pressures and stresses that can cloud your view of a situation. The video gives you choices to make along the way, and you can go back and explore the outcomes of different choices at a particular junction. I was surprised to find my own instinct to give a person the benefit of the doubt can sometimes turn out to be the wrong approach. Take a look, it is one of the best RCR instructional tools that I’ve seen so far.

I titled this post “Doing what’s right even if no one’s watching.” It should be “Doing what’s right even if you think no one’s watching.” Someone WILL read your notebook someday, someone WILL try to replicate your experiment. It’s a question of when. In this postdoc’s opinion, it is in your best interest as a scientist, and in the best interest of the profession as a whole, to embrace RCR training.