Professional Ethics for the Graduate Student

Probably one of the most difficult topics to tackle is professional ethics. Why is that? In a world where there appears to be no one right way to do anything, everything appears gray.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “there is no black and white” or that, when the situation is rather gray, the right thing to do is to leave it up to the individual. As catchy as that may sound, that type of thought process will land you in trouble when it comes to doing research or engaging in graduate student activities. While this section is largely geared towards professional ethics for a graduate student engaging in research, I will also touch upon some generalities.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is pieced together from my years of experience as a student and an academic. I also have a unique vantage point as chair of a department.

  1. If your research involves data, the first thing to remember is to not alter, fudge, or change data. This is especially true if you own an instrument and make measurements. You have a professional responsibility to report the data as it was measured.
  2. It is imperative that you report your results with all of the methodology so your results can be duplicated if necessary. This is definitely a professional responsibility since you have to allow others to learn from your research and build upon your work as well. For those of us who receive federal grants and contracts, it is important to remember that these research dollars were funded largely from tax payers.
  3. The same situation applies for the data that you collect that were funded by grants and contracts. It is your professional and ethical responsibility to make it available to everyone. Therefore, hoarding data for personal gains is not conducive to research.
  4. We are all creatures of perception and preconceived ideas. We may all claim to be open minded or broad minded. We may have the highest degrees possible – a Ph.D. But when it comes to research, I have seen a many a researcher who desperately hopes to fit the data to the preconceived conclusion. Bad idea.
  5. When plotting results in figures from the data, it is critical to show all data not just the ones that fits the best correlations. Often, it is in those outliers where some interesting research findings exist.
  6. Plagiarism is a difficult issue. I often tell this story to the students in my Professional Development course. An eye opener. When I was in the first semester of graduate school, I became friends with an international student who was also new to the program. As young Graduate Research Assistants, our job was to work on research topics with our advisors. Our advisors gave us state-of-the-art research papers to read and helped us through the process of doing leading edge research. My friend’s advisor was a no-nonsense, top notch researcher in his mid to late career. He had a prolific publication record and was well know in his field. As students, we not only did research but also took courses to bolster our understanding and strengthen our foundation.  In January of that year, just at the beginning of that semester, my friend’s advisor gave him a journal paper that had just appeared in print. In my field, there are a lot of papers that appear on a weekly/monthly basis and not everyone is aware of every new paper the week it appears in print. As you go through this story, the key thing to remember is that my friend was an international student. My friend carefully read the paper that his advisor had given him and treated it like every other paper on his reading assignment in his class. This class  was taught by a professor who encouraged his students to write project reports. My friend now made a huge mistake that he thought was not a major issue. He wrote a project paper for the course with several paragraphs and words that were taken from the paper that his advisor had given him. To make matters worse, the professor was excited about my friend’s project paper and ideas and upon reading the paper promptly walked to my friend’s advisor and exclaimed, “Take a look at this amazing project paper.”  You can already sense that trouble was just around the corner. My friend’s advisor took a quick look at the project paper and not only proceeded to explain the problem but gave the professor the same copy of the paper that he had given my friend. Upon learning that the student had copied a lot of material from the paper, both the advisor and the professor were upset. The student was confronted and was quickly dismissed from the program on grounds of plagiarism. Some of you may feel that this was the right decision, and others may think that the decision to dismiss was rather harsh – especially since the student was not “aware” of plagiarism issues. It is, therefore, imperative that all students at the beginning of their research career, and at the beginning of every course, be reminded of plagiarism issues. It takes less than 5 minutes to do this, but it eliminates a lot of heartache for everyone involved.
  7.  Often faculty (and therefore the students) are asked to review papers that were written by other researchers. Remember that when you accepted the responsibility to review this paper – I emphasize the word responsibility – you accepted the conditions set forth by the journal for reviewing this paper. An important clause is that you will not take the methods outlined in the paper and use it for your own gains. This means that you cannot reject the paper and then turn around some of the ideas in that paper and publish it in another venue. This is certainly unethical. Granted, that these things do happen in real life. My advice is to practice professional ethics and stay above board and guess what? You can sleep well at night knowing that you have not stolen someone else’s ideas.
  8. Whether you are reviewing a paper or proposal it is important that you review it for its merits and move on.
  9. Here is a potentially explosive situation that I heard recently. “My wife’s advisor did not allow her to publish her data because it went against the grain of his theories. He, therefore, delayed her graduation and frustrated her progress.”  What does one do in this case? As much as your advisor may be the world leader in his field, the first thing that you have to determine is whether the advisor asked the student to falsify the results. If that is the case, then I suggest that you find another advisor somewhere and distance yourself from this person as far as possible. No compromise. On the other hand, if all you are having are disagreements in the way the analysis is being conducted or the methods that are being used, then make sure that you are not over-amplifying the problem. Your advisor has a lot more experience than you. Create an atmosphere for discussions and arguments that are productive.
  10. Another source of conflict that is an ethical issue is the order of authorship on papers. Here is another story. A friend of mine while in graduate school was asked to write a paper to a major journal. His advisor let him believe that the student was going to be the first author. At the very last stage of submission, the advisor placed his name in front of the student’s name. The student was upset, but the advisor indicated to the student that it was an executive decision on his part. As sobering as that story sounds, I have heard other instances of this lack of professionalism. Advisors should be in the habit of building a student’s career not frustrating them. Having said that, it is important to note that the rules of engagement regarding authorship should be outlined early on in the student-advisor relationship and reinforced at crucial junctures.
  11. When collaborating with other scientists, most of the issues outlined above are still true. Establish rules of engagement upfront so there are no misconceptions on authorships or responsibilities. Communicate effectively!

Professional ethics is a lot more than simply the examples and discussion points that I have presented. When confronted with ethical dilemmas, my recommendation is to carefully evaluate the situation rather than reacting to the situation. Apply common sense principles and learn how to think about another’s vantage point. If you are a student, think about your advisor’s vantage point. If you are struggling with what you perceive is an ethical issue and you do not know what to do – do not stew over it. Seek out a mentor and work through the problem. Finally, most people that I know and work with are ethical and are genuinely interested in their profession. Therefore, do not make a mountain out of a molehill.

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