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VI. Ethics in the Conduct of Research

VI. Ethics in the Conduct of Research

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standpoint, it is more important to think about how we as scientists engage in those

debates and resolve those and other issues. How do we develop and test hypotheses, marshal1 data, draw and report inferences, engage in rational discourse, and

work with colleagues and students in an ethical manner?

In this section, I describe my perceptions of ethical and unethical behavior in

several specific situations encountered in agronomic research and in agricultural

research in general. In each case, I move from situations in which I believe there

is considerable agreement on ethical choices to ones in which ethical behavior is

harder to specify clearly. This is not an exhaustive treatment by any means but will

serve more as a partial list of research situations with ethical dimensions. In this

section, I used the terms scientist and researcher interchangeably.


1. Selecting Topics for Research

Scientists embark on specific research efforts because they are interested in the

subject matter, have expertise in the subject matter, wish to learn something, think

the subject matter is important, wish to perform a service, wish to gain personal

reward, or some combination of these. The decisions are conditioned by employment opportunities and the availability of resources to support research. I am not

convinced that these decisions, except those involving public service, have much

practical ethical content. Of course, each person must let hisher own ethical perceptions guide these decisions.

2. Designing Experiments

Creative scientists generate hypotheses. The more creative and knowledgeable

they are, the more likely they are to generate hypotheses that depart from the current paradigm. Although there is a definite resistance to new paradigms in the scientific community, researchers who bring about paradigm shifts are often rewarded. The greatest reward is the feeling of having gone where no one went before,

having been the first human in the history of the world to understand a phenomenon, no matter how minute and unimportant. Other more tangible rewards include

recognition, accolades, fame, and money.

Scientists may become emotionally involved with their hypotheses. They want

these products of their intuition and insight to be true. Unless scientists are vigilant, they will unconsciously do things in their research and analysis that will

“stack the deck” in favor of their hypotheses. Lay people placed in the role of experimenters do this in the extreme (Folwell, 1969).

It is important for scientists to design experiments that will disprove their hy-



potheses if they are not true. Thus, scientists are put in the position of having to

scrutinize their own creations with cold objectivity and with a critical eye. They

must subject their creations to rigorous tests. Intellectual honesty and integrity are

of paramount importance in this situation. Only if a hypothesis is not proven false

by rigorous experimentation is it ethical for the scientist to promote it as a new


3. Collecting and Reporting Data

Both practical and ethical considerations dictate that scientists should carefully

and accurately record data. The levels of precision and accuracy required are functions of the size of the differences investigators need and wish to detect. It is generally accepted that fabrication and falsification of data constitute unethical behavior, except in special situations such as espionage. In reports, data should be

accurately represented so that readers are not mislead.

In many situations, it is hard to determine whether data have been fabricated or

falsified. The more a scientist knows about the subject matter of an experiment,

the easier to fabricate or falsify data without being detected. A knowledgeable person can shade the data so that they support a certain hypothesis without changing

them so much that the changes are apparent. Moving a few observations toward

or away from a treatment mean can alter the statistical analysis such that it supports one hypothesis over another. Such alterations of data are clearly dishonest

and unethical.

It is unethical for an investigator to provide only data that support a certain hypothesis if he/she collected other data. There are cases, however, in which extraneous forces ruin treatments and even entire experiments, rendering part or all of

the data useless. Whether or not experiments have been ruined or data are worthless or misleading is often a judgment call, requiring objectivity and integrity.

There are statistical techniques that accommodate missing data without changing variance estimates. These should not be used to deal with outliers, however,

unless the outliers are clearly artifacts. Intellectual honesty and integrity are very

important in this situation. It is best in these situations to err on the side of caution.

4. Analyzing Data

Most agronomic data are subject to statistical analysis. Statistical analyses are

conducted and reported so that those interested in an experiment can get a more

accurate perspective on the degree of variation, both controlled and extraneous,

encountered in the experimental material and conditions. With statistical information, others can decide whether they think an investigator’s conclusions and inferences are appropriate.

Typically, agronomists test hypotheses at P = probability of type one error =



0.05. Frustrated with the high degree of variation encountered, especially in field

environments, they may elect to conduct and report statistical tests at higher levels of R They may elect to report the actual level of P computed for each test.

Researchers may perform various transformations so that data conform more

closely to the assumption of normality associated with many standard analytic procedures. Such practices are not unethical, so long as they are accurately portrayed

to readers and other recipients of reports.

It is not a case, however, of “let the buyer beware.” It is ethically incumbent on

researchers to perform and present statistical analyses with as much objectivity,

accuracy, and intellectual rigor as they can reasonably muster. Again, the role of

experiments and statistical analyses is to disprove hypotheses that are not true, not

to support hypotheses.

Statistics can be used to mislead, either intentionally or unintentionally. For example, high correlation or multiple correlation coefficients result when there are

linear trends in dependent and independent variables, regardless of whether any

causal connections exist. As the number of parameters in a multiple regression

model approaches the number of observations in an analysis, the multiple correlation approaches 1 .O.

These spurious relationships may mislead both the researcher and hidher audience. It is obviously unethical to use statistical anomalies to mislead people deliberately. Whether it is unethical to use them unintentionally is in that gray area

mentioned previously.

5. Drawing and Reporting Inferences

Technically, inferences drawn from an agronomic experiment only apply to the

materials and conditions of that experiment. At the same time, it is usually impractical to test hypotheses with all possible materials and under all possible conditions. Compounding the problem is the necessity to provide research information to practitioners working within a wide range of materials and conditions.

Thus, there is great pressure on agronomists to extend their inference space beyond that included within their experiments.

It is not unethical to interpolate and/or extrapolate the results of experiments. It

is risky, however. It is important for the researcher to evaluate that risk and communicate it to audiences to the extent possible. It is unethical to interpolate or extrapolate with the intent to mislead. As in most research situations, there is a gray

area that requires good judgment, intellectual honesty, and integrity.

6. Establishing and Maintaining Credibility

When a researcher is competent, professional, ethical, and intellectually honest

in measuring, recording, analyzing, and presenting the results of experiments and



inferences drawn from them, he/she establishes credibility and contributes to the

credibility of hisher organization. Without credibility, neither scientists nor their

organizations can function effectively.

Both scientists and practitioners have different expectations of public-sector and

private-sector scientists. Public-sector scientists are expected to be honest and

thorough in their portrayal of research results and inferences, even when they are

comparing competing products. A private-sector scientist might reasonably be expected to portray hisher company’s product in the best light and to remain silent

with respect to performance of competing products.

Private-sector scientists lose credibility for both themselves and their companies if they misrepresent their products and services or portray competing products dishonestly. Markets are good mechanisms for determining value and customers have long memories, so the punishment for lack of credibility can be severe

for private-sector scientists and their organizations.

There is a very large gray area associated with credibility. My experience suggests that, contrary to some expectations, public institutions and public-sector scientists do not have a corner on credibility compared to private-sector scientists.

There is considerable variation in each category. In both arenas, rigorous peer review and peer pressure provide strong incentives for intellectual honesty and ethical behavior.



1. Preparing Proposals

In the quest for program and project support, scientists and science administrators spend much time preparing proposals. These may take the form of technical

proposals submitted to competitive grants programs in response to solicitations.

They may be solicited or unsolicited proposals to private firms seeking support in

the form of gifts, grants, or contracts. They may be political proposals, often prepared for lobbyists or legislative champions to use in supporting research-related


These categories of proposals are similar in requesting an investment in return

for something. Timeframes and deliverables may or may not be specified precisely, but some new information or technology, either prototype orproven, is expected

in return for the investment.

In research situations, outcomes are uncertain, almost by definition. There are

some things the investor can expect, however. Ethical behavior of proposal authors

in this situation includes promising only what can be delivered, clearly informing

the investor of the risks involved, and providing an objective estimate of the probability of achieving a goal.



If the agreed-on goal of a proposed research effort is to achieve some desired

practical outcome, both investor and applicant should be clearly informed of all

activities that will be required to achieve the goal, including those outside the proposed research effort. It is important that both researchers and investors start projects with reasonable expectations.

I find terminology associated with the recent Government Performance and Results Act useful in thinking about research organized around desired practical outcomes. The key terms are goals, activities, outputs, and outcomes. Outputs of research efforts often include publications. Sometimes prototype products and/or

processes are produced. Rarely is the desired outcome a direct result, that is, output, of a single research activity. Usually, other activities, including other kinds of

research, technology transfer, and commercialization efforts, are required.

It is unethical for a researcher to accept money from sponsors if the researcher

does not intend to help achieve the agreed-on goals. To do so is to accept money

under false pretenses. If a researcher does not believe the goal is appropriate or

ethical, he/she should not enter into an agreement specifying that goal. Often,

problems can be avoided by clearly specifying and agreeing on goals during contract negotiations.

Conversely, sponsors are obligated not to exploit researchers by using research

results for other than intended purposes. In my own experience, a manufacturer of

hay preservatives supported university research that supposedly showed a considerable benefit from using the product. The preliminary research results, which

were never subjected to peer review or published in scientific journals, were used

extensively in the firm’s advertising.

I pointed out to the firm that the design of the preliminary experiments was

flawed. My colleagues and I proved in other experiments that the product was ineffective. Our results were peer reviewed and published in a reliable journal. The

manufacturer continued to manufacture and market the product.

Unless the manufacturer really believed the product was cost-effective, it was

unethical to continue marketing it. I participated as an expert witness in litigation

initiated by dissatisfied users of the product. I did not enjoy or wish to be involved

in this litigation, but I felt morally obligated to make sure that research results were

used properly.

It is appropriate to ask in this situation if it was ethical for researchers of three

universities to perform flawed experiments and allow the firm to use the results in

advertising. I believe there was no intent on the part of the researchers to mislead

the company or its customers. It was simply incompetence.

The researchers involved were not Ph.D. scientists and might not have been expected to understand all the nuances of experiment design. They were, however,

authorized to conduct independent research. Whether it is unethical to be incompetent or for a university not to have some safeguards against incompetence of its

researchers is one of the issues in the gray area.



2. Proposal Budgets

Research is an open-ended process. There are almost always great uncertainties

about the future of any research effort. Researchers want to make sure there are

plenty of funds to support a research effort, be able to do the research thoroughly

and accurately, and deal with contingencies along the way. They want funds to provide continuity and stability so that they are not constantly expanding and contracting the project, which is wasteful, inconvenient, frustrating, and tends to fragment the effort. A researcher’s organization needs to recover indirect costs, one

way or the other.

Sponsors, on the other hand, need to keep costs to a minimum. They want to be

assured that, within reasonable limits, they are only paying for the research contracted for and not for other research that may be of interest to the researcher or

hisher organization. They definitely do not wish to pay for other activities or costs

of the researcher’s organization, such as publicity and fund-raising, unless they

have given their approval for such expenditures.

Budget numbers should be the result of careful, objective analyses of the costs

of achieving mutually agreed-on objectives within the agreed-on timeframe. As

much as is possible given the relative unpredictability of the future of a research

project, contingencies should be clearly identified and the methods to deal with

them should be explicit. It is unethical and almost always counterproductive for

either a researcher or a sponsor to try to mislead the other in budget negotiations.

If a budget represents a researcher’s best effort to estimate the costs of proposed

research and the sponsor is unable to invest enough to cover the costs, the project

may be scaled back, its scope diminished, or its proposed duration lengthened. Either the researcher or the sponsor may decide that the project is not financially feasible. As in most such situations with considerable gray area, intellectual honesty

and integrity are of paramount importance.

3. Indirect Cost Recovery

As a community of agricultural research scientists and administrators, we have

failed to come to grips with the ethical dimensions of indirect cost recovery.

Given the internal and external conflicts of interest involved and the potentially high

cost of adhering strictly to rules and protocols, we have handled this issue loosely.

Research incurs indirect costs, such as the costs of utilities, depreciation of facilities and equipment, administration, and various support services. These costs,

although indirect, are real and must be recovered from some source.

Most institutions, organizations, agencies, and private firms have indirect cost

policies that guide decisions about what or how much indirect cost they will agree

to pay when they sponsor research and how much they will try to recover from

outside sponsors. Government-audited rates for many universities are between 40



and 70% of modified total direct costs of projects. Private firms often have indirect cost rates exceeding 100%.

For obvious reasons, universities do not ask donors and benefactors to pay additional sums to cover indirect costs incurred when gifts are used to support research. Universities have considerable discretion in their use of gifts. Donors may

specify broad areas they wish their gifts to support but ordinarily would not specify in detail how the gift should be spent. In many cases, an institution can use gift

income to pay for items usually classified as indirect costs.

In the case of grant or contract research, however, activities, objectives, and associated direct costs are specified in proposals, agreements, and contracts. Money

provided to cover direct costs cannot be used to pay indirect costs. Universities

deem it appropriate in those situations to insist on full indirect cost recovery from


Intermediate indirect cost rates may be negotiated in individual cases, depending on how large the grants are, whether or not the university stands to gain royalties, the prospects for future gifts or grants, in-kind contributions by sponsors,

etc. Institutions may establish relatively low “internal” indirect cost recovery rates

for other public or quasi-public institutions, organizations, or agencies.

A university researcher may encourage a sponsor to provide research support in

the form of a gift rather than a grant or contract. In that situation, no indirect costs

are recovered and the entire gift may go directly into the researcher’s program to

cover the direct costs of research. There may be a tacit agreement between the researcher and the sponsor specifying the research to be done, the deliverables, and

timeframes. Because the university does not know the tacit contract exists, it does

not require indirect cost recovery.

When these tacit contracts are funded with gifts, the indirect costs incurred by

the research are shifted to other parts of the university’s budget. In effect, the money comes out of other research and education programs, without the approval of

those managing, conducting, and sponsoring those programs. Increasingly, universities are imposing internal surcharges on gift accounts to help offset indirect

costs incurred when gifts are used for research.

Knowingly entering into such tacit contracts for the purpose of avoiding indirect costs is clearly unethical behavior on the part of both researchers and sponsors. It is ethically incumbent on researchers, sponsors, and others directly involved in negotiations on gifts, grants, and contracts to be open and honest about

what is expected of each participant and what restrictions are being imposed on

use of sponsors funds.

The ethical gray areas include negotiated rates and situations in which sponsors

make zero or inappropriately low indirect cost recovery a condition of their sponsorship. The most prominent example is the legislative mandate that the federal

government will pay only 17% of direct costs to cover indirect costs associated

with USDA competitive grants.

The result of this policy is that other sponsors, particularly state governments,



are required to share the unrecovered indirect costs of USDA competitively funded projects. Other federal research-sponsoring agencies pay full audited indirect

cost rates. It is appropriate to ask if it is ethical for a government agency or institution to accept or provide grants with arbitrary limits on indirect cost recovery. It

would be better if sponsors would simply look at the bottom line and decide if they

are receiving the best value for their investment.

4. PeerReview

Scientists are asked to provide peer reviews of proposals submitted to granting

agencies and manuscripts submitted for publication in scientific journals. Program

managers and journal editors are responsible for selecting reviewers with expertise and experience in the subject matter addressed by a specific proposal orjournal article. Reviewers are usually asked to decline the invitation to review a proposal or project if they think they do not have the required expertise, experience,

time, or other resources required to generate a thorough, useful, and discriminating review.

It is unethical for a scientist knowingly to undertake or complete a review if

he/she lacks the necessary qualifications. It is also unethical, in my opinion, to provide a cursory, superficial review. In the gray area are reviews for which the reviewer is only partially qualified and reviews that are unnecessarily critical, laced

with sarcasm and/or personal innuendos, or simply incompetent. Not surprisingly, the latter characteristics are often found in the same review.

5. Authorship and Shared Recognition

It is clearly unethical for a scientist to claim to author something he/she did not

author. This is plagiarism, which joins falsification and fabrication of data as the

unforgivable sins of scientists. Authorship in this context requires an author to

make a meaningful contribution to the research being reported.

Gratuitous authorship, that is, including people in a list of authors for the sole

purpose of rewarding them for past favors or attaching more credibility to research

than it otherwise would have, is unethical. Intentionally refusing or failing to include or at least acknowledge an author who made a meaningful contribution is

likewise unethical. Needless to say, the gray area is in the interpretation of meaningful in any specitic situation.


Perhaps this is best illustrated with an example. One of my colleagues is convinced that another colleague deliberately authored false statements in a peerreviewed article, intending to mislead the readers into placing more confidence in



some data than is justified. He asked me if he should write a letter to the editor of

the journal exposing this misconduct. I suggested that we hold a closed, internal

hearing in which the accuser and the accused could make statements to a panel of

their peers. That group could decide what steps to take next.

I am concerned that such a serious accusation, publicized internationally before

it can be thoroughly investigated, can devastate a person’s career, whether or not

it is true. To further complicate matters, the accuser does not wish to confront the


This situation raises a number of the questions that are typical of the issues encountered in whistle-blowing. Is it ethical for this person who has become aware

of serious misconduct not to reveal the misconduct? Is it ethical for the accuser to

make accusations to others but refuse to confront the accused in an appropriate forum, thus giving the accused a chance to defend himself?

Given a long history of personality conflict between these two individuals, are

the accusations the result of an objective analysis by the accuser? Is it ethical for

me, having been provided somewhat convincing evidence that some wrongdoing

is involved, to let this matter drop without taking some kind of action to explore the

situation further, even without the cooperation of the accuser? Is it ethical of me to

reveal things that were revealed to me in confidence, knowing that the accuser does

not wish this information revealed? The answer to all of these questions is no.

I must weigh the potential good and bad consequences of the alternative courses

of action. Some pertinent questions include the following: Could this apparent

wrongdoing simply be a mistake that could be corrected by the accused writing a

letter of explanation to the journal? What harm is done to this person and his students if he is guilty of wrongdoing, is not confronted, and is allowed to continue

the wrongdoing? What effect would a serious, open confrontation on this issue

have on morale and the image of our institution? Will having wrong information

in the literature cause problems for other scientists or practitioners? How much administrative and faculty time can we afford to spend on this particular incident?



A potential conflict of interest arises when a scientist is in a position to use

hisher position and the influence associated with it for personal gain beyond the

contractual compensation associated with the position or to benefit disproportionately within hisher organization or system. Whether or not an actual conflict exists depends on several factors.

It is unethical for a scientist to let outside relationships prevent himher from

fulfilling contractual obligations to hisher employer. It is unethical for a scientist

to attempt to manipulate competitive processes unfairly in hisher own favor or in

favor of groups to which the faculty member is attached or obligated in some way.



It is not unethical for a scientist to receive shares of royalties or other compensation as a result of contractual relationships between the investigator’s organization and other organizations. It is not unethical for a scientist to own, operate, or

otherwise participate in a business, so long as the relationship does not prevent the

scientist from meeting contractual obligations to his organization and moral obligations to its constituents.

Employers may ask employees to reveal their relationships with outside organizations that compensate them more than a specified amount. This allows the employer to investigate and decide if a conflict of interest exists.

Conflicts of interest are often subtle and virtually undetectable from the outside.

Individuals know best when they have a conflict of interest. Ethical behavior includes revealing potential conflicts of interest and behaving in an even-handed and

objective manner even when potential conflicts of interest exist. A person who has

the level of intellectual honesty and integrity required to be a good scientist should

be able to think and act objectively even when hisiher own interests are at stake.

I have always been frustrated when conflict of interest rules require certain people on a proposal review panel to leave the room. The rules often preclude people

from the same institution or even the same state as an applicant to refrain from participating in a review of the applicant’s proposal. In my experience, this usually

has the effect of barring from the discussion the people who know the most about

the proposal and the applicant. It also suggests that other panel members are so

naive that they do not know when they are being manipulated.

A problem is created in a proposal review process when more detailed information is available about some projects than others. This is given as another reason for barring those with a potential conflict from the review. An “ignorance is

bliss” argument usually raises a flag with me, but I can understand the concerns of

those who take this position.




Increasingly, public institutions and agencies are expanding and improving systems to identify and protect intellectual property generated in their research operations. This represents a significant cultural as well as administrative change in

many public institutions, particularly universities.

A few decades ago, the most common attitude in universities and especially in

colleges of agriculture was that intellectual property generated with public funds

belonged to the public and should be freely available to any member of the public

who wished to see or use it. Now, universities see their intellectual property as being owned by the public, but they feel a responsibility to manage it in the best interests of the public.

Transferring intellectual property to the public domain, thus making it freely



available to all members of the public, is not always in the public’s best interest.

Sometimes, in order to assure that useful new information and technology will be

commercialized and thus benefit the public, it is necessary to give some individual or group proprietary access to it.

Often, intellectual property generated by public institutions and agencies takes

the form of prototype products, services, or information. More investment, research and development, and marketing is often necessary before such prototype

technology can be successfully commercialized. By licensing discoveries and inventions exclusively or semiexclusively to interested and capable firms or individuals, public institutions provide incentives for further investment in commercializing these developments.

Public institutions use patents, copyrights, and trade secrets to protect intellectual property from being appropriated by unauthorized individuals. The management, including sale and licensing, of intellectual property involves several ethical issues.

1. Patent and Copyright Infringement

It is illegal and unethical to commercialize patented material or duplicate, disseminate, or commercialize copyrighted intellectual property without the permission of the owner of the patent or copyright. This unethical behavior is similar to

plagiarism. The law has never been specific on whether it is illegal to reproduce a

patented item in order to conduct research on that item. Differences of opinion on

whether patents or copyrights have been infringed upon are usually settled through

litigation. Often the technical issues are quite complex. As more cases are litigated, attorneys and courts gain experience, and clearer precedents are set.

2. Ethics and Trade Secrets

Until relatively recently, trade secrets were not protected, but laws now have

words to the effect that if a secret is “sufficiently secret,” it is protected, much like

a patent. Sufficiently secret means that the information or material has not been

broadly disseminated. Also, those with whom it has been shared should know that

they were not granted commercialization rights nor are they free to pass the information or materials to others. Trade secrets are not protected from the possibility that someone else may rediscover or reinvent the secret technology.

Items of germplasm and other genetic material may be patented but more frequently are treated as trade secrets. Increasingly, institutions insist that people requesting and receiving germplasm from scientists sign material transfer agreements. These are usually papers acknowledging that the recipient has not been

granted rights to commercialize the material. Recipients are not allowed to pass

the material to others without permission of the owner of the trade secret.

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