University expands ethics education to all researchers

Sept. 21, 2011

No longer just the province of the humanities, the study of ethics is taking on a greater role in Princeton University's training of future researchers. Across classrooms and research labs, faculty and students are building on the questions posed by ancient philosophers and applying them in discussions about plagiarism and fraud, conflicts of interest, and working with human research subjects.

Anna Hiszpanski, a graduate student in chemical and biological engineering, took the new class "Responsible Conduct in Research: A Course on Ethics in Engineering" last fall to gain insights into her ethical responsibilities as a researcher.

"The course made me more conscious of ethical choices and situations I face on a day-to-day basis as a graduate student and researcher," she said. "More than simply identifying possible pitfalls, it also offered advice on how to navigate and avoid ethical dilemmas."

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In a research ethics course from last fall, electrical engineering graduate students Yue Tian (left) and Tiance Wang (right, with clicker) "vote" on a multiple-choice question about a hypothetical ethical dilemma. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

For many years, Princeton has offered courses about conducting research ethically in the life sciences because of federal funding guidelines, and the University now has extended its commitment to this training to all of the natural sciences, social sciences, mathematics and engineering departments.

Princeton's Dean for Research A.J. Stewart Smith and Dean of the Graduate School William Russel formed a committee two years ago to explore requiring a course on responsible conduct in research. Coincidentally, the National Science Foundation began requiring such training for all its grantees as of 2010 and the National Institutes of Health updated its requirements as well, which accelerated Princeton's effort, said David Redman, associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School.

"That meshed nicely with our plans to push this as a necessary professional development activity in the natural sciences, engineering and the social sciences," Redman said. While providing an online ethics course would have met the federal requirements, that "doesn't meet the standard of a course taught with senior faculty members and discussion" that Princeton's expanded offerings provide, he said.

Smith and Russel announced the creation of a Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) Training Plan in March 2010. RCR courses are required for federally funded students and postdoctoral researchers in the natural sciences, mathematics, engineering and the social sciences, and most departments in these disciplines are requiring all of their graduate students to receive this training. Undergraduates and visiting student research collaborators may meet the University and federal requirements by taking an online training course.

The University's RCR courses must include significant student-faculty discussion, and be taught by regular faculty or emeriti. They also cover topics in 11 core areas: data acquisition, sharing, management and ownership; conflicts of interest and commitment; research misconduct; publication practices and responsible authorship; peer review; collaborative research; mentor and student/trainee rights and responsibilities; animal welfare; human subjects; science in society; and safe laboratory practices. Topics covered vary according to the nature of the research in the discipline. Issues of animal welfare are relevant to graduate student and postdoctoral researchers in psychology and biology, for example, but not relevant in electrical engineering or computer science.

From intensive two-day summer courses to half-term classes during the academic year, the University's departments have established a variety of ways to engage students in these areas of research ethics.

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Claire Gmachl, the Eugine Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, teaches "Responsible Conduct in Research: A Course on Ethics in Engineering," a half-semester course that provides a brief background in moral philosophy and covers topics such as research misconduct, credit and authorship in publications, student-adviser relationships, and the wider societal implications of engineering decisions. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Ethics in engineering

Due to the RCR program, Claire Gmachl, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, has introduced students to the complex professional and societal implications of conducting research and bringing new technologies to market.

Gmachl volunteered to teach "Responsible Conduct in Research: A Course on Ethics in Engineering," a new half-semester course typically offered in the fall and required of all engineering graduate students. In addition to providing a brief background in moral philosophy, the course covered topics such as research misconduct, credit and authorship in publications, student-adviser relationships, collaborations, and the wider societal implications of engineering decisions.

"It's not just for their time as graduate students, it's training for a profession," said Gmachl, noting that the University and society put a lot of resources into graduate education. "What we ask in return is their honest work and their good judgment to solve societal problems. It's a big responsibility and it's important to live up to it."

Gmachl worked with the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education to plan and develop the content. With Keller Center funding, Jinju Pottenger, a 2010 alumna who majored in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Alexander Hwang, an economics major from the class of 2011, worked with Gmachl during the previous the summer to research other ethics courses and to help organize the course.

To make the course more engaging and to focus students on the thought processes of ethical decision-making, Gmachl peppers her presentations with hypothetical scenarios and presents the students with multiple-choice responses. In one exercise, students "voted" with handheld devices and the aggregated results were instantly projected on a screen. They were given a scenario involving an adviser who kept asking a student to redo experiments when the results did not match the hypothesis. Gmachl noted that the students' reactions sometimes shifted as new information was added to the hypothetical scenario and as students heard each other's views.

Applied ethics also have become a part of undergraduate education at Princeton, even when not part of the RCR training plan. For example, Jay Benziger, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, regularly teaches "Ethics and Technology: Engineering in the Real World," which draws a number of non-engineers. The course focuses less on research misconduct and more on the decisions and tradeoffs engineers face in developing technologies for market.

"Technology shapes our society and political institutions in ways we don't get to vote on," Benziger said. He cited the invention of ever-larger farm equipment that increased production and helped drive a shift toward corporate mega-farms.

"I'm trying to raise these issues for students. I don't have all the answers," Benziger said. "But as an engineer you really do have an ethical responsibility because your work really impacts society, whether you know it or not." 

Lessons in life sciences

The National Institutes of Health began asking their grant applicants about RCR in 1989 and started requiring such plans in 1994. To satisfy the RCR requirement, Princeton's molecular biology department developed the Princeton's graduate course "Scientific Integrity in the Practice of Molecular Biology," which Lee Silver began teaching in 2003.

Silver, a professor of molecular biology and public affairs, has focused his research on the ethical and social implications of advances in reproductive technology and genetics. His RCR class, however, covers issues of personal integrity rather than societal questions.

"What is appropriate or inappropriate in terms of doing research, reporting research, using the ideas of another researcher, and what to do if a grad student suspects another researcher of misconduct?" Silver said, framing some of the central questions of the class.

Other issues covered in the course include the framework for public support of basic biomedical research, the rights and responsibilities of students and mentors in that research, intellectual property, and dealings with human and animal subjects.

Silver uses case studies and class discussion to convey the material. This spring, he also sparked discussion on ethical dilemmas with videos recently produced by the Office of Research Integrity in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While students often have the most passionate discussions about the issue of how credit for collaborative experiments is divided in research publications, Silver said students will more frequently need to probe their own actions in the lab.

"The most important issue is how to guard against unintentional bias or misconduct in one's own research," he said.

A focused approach in history

As an example of exploring ethics in the social sciences, over the course of two days and 12 hours in June, a group of students pursuing Ph.D.'s in history and the history of science were engaged in an intensive workshop that is a part of the new course "Research Ethics and the Dissertation Prospectus." The course is co-taught by 10 professors, with one or two of them leading each session.

The bulk of the class focuses on students' proposed research materials, issues and structures for their dissertation. The RCR workshop, however, covers a number of practical topics, including: identifying original research and setting research agendas; obligations to patrons, including the public, and conflicts of interest; problems such as bias in sources, attribution, data collection and processing; human subjects, oral history, and intellectual property; collaborative research; responsible authorship and peer review; research misconduct; mentoring, bullying, harassment and stereotyping in professional relationships; standards and research across fields; history in society; and teaching ethical practice to undergraduates.

Professor of History and Hellenic Studies John Haldon, who devised the course together with Professor of History Angela Creager, said the timing and structure of the class, to be offered annually, are meant to maximize the impact on graduate students, who have just finished their general exams and are preparing to begin their dissertations.

"It usefully precedes their dissertation prospectus seminar in June, and we minimize the demand on faculty," Haldon said. "It also immediately precedes most post-generals second-year students setting off for their first big extended research trips, so it's useful for them to be forearmed about issues that may arise and how to deal with them or where to go to get advice or assistance."

Expanding RCR courses to the social sciences has been a useful and popular move, Haldon said, based on the level of engagement exhibited by students in last summer's class.

"A member of faculty opens up the debate, and the discussion then generally runs itself because the students effectively take over," he said. "Once the students get to grips with the themes, they are usually extremely keen to push the discussions further."