Chemical education does a great job of teaching future chemists
the scientific subject matter but usually gives matters of professional
education short shrift, according to Brian
P. Coppola, a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor. By neglecting topics such as ethics, colleges are providing
an incomplete education to their chemistry students. "Teaching
research ethics is part of doing a better job of teaching the profession
of chemistry and of science," said Coppola, who made his remarks
during a symposium on ethics in the chemistry curriculum sponsored
by the Division of Chemical
Education during last month's ACS national meeting in Anaheim,
||SENSITIZER Fisher teaches her students about
the ethical attitudes of different cultures.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM A. COTTON, CSU
Some institutions, including Coppola's, have accepted this
challenge and provide their chemistry students with training in
ethics. When a university introduces the topic, however, it must
decide how best to squeeze the subject into the curriculum. Should
ethics be covered in a lecture or a lab course? Should it be woven
into existing courses or presented in a stand-alone course? Should
the subject be covered only at the beginning or end of a degree
program or visited periodically throughout the program? And is
college or graduate school even the right place for such education?
The University of
Michigan chemistry department sprinkles ethical training throughout
its curriculum, offering the subject in both freshman and upper-level
undergraduate courses, as well as graduate courses.
Nearly 15% of freshman students take an honors organic chemistry
course that includes supplemental instruction in research ethics.
The instruction introduces students to concepts such as correct
citation of others' work and the obligations of peer review. The
students read a paper on research ethics and write a position
paper in response.
Later, the freshmen work through fictitious case studies and
then move on to contemporary examples of real-world situations
that involve ethical decision-making. The students provide an
ethical analysis of the issues surrounding a case, write statements
about their positions on the case, and discuss the case with their
classmates. One case used is the Kansas State Board of Education's
decision to remove questions related to evolution from its assessment
For many of the students, Coppola said, the course is the first
place they learn that scientific misconduct exists and that scientists
have done things like falsifying data.
In the second semester of the freshman organic chemistry course,
the students work in small groups on projects such as summarizing
a journal article. The material they prepare serves as the foundation
for the text of the final exam. "The point is to move the students
not only into a greater sense of ownership of their learning,
but in fact to think very carefully about the responsibilities
that come along with it. That's where the ethics part comes in,"
"For instance, if you start making stuff up and put the false
stuff into the text that you're creating, other students are going
to read it and believe it's true. But now it really matters, because
it's actually your final exam and the final exam of your
peers where this work is going to be expressed," Coppola said.
The same goes for the course's lab component, which is based
in part on experiment proposals written by the students. In what
Coppola described as "an unfortunate, yet wonderful, situation,"
one of the accepted proposals included a transcription error that
led many of the students down the wrong path for two weeks. "It
made the point very concrete that what you publish, what you present,
can really impact the working lives of other people."
The first-year students also write up a case in research ethics
based on their own experiences--a process they may find cathartic.
Last year, a student submitted a case in which he or she collected
a sample from a communal container with a used pipette, contaminating
the material in the container. The student's own experiment worked
out fine, but over the coming weeks mysterious by-products began
appearing in other students' work. Coppola said that, in the report
on the case, the student wrote, "I want other students who contaminate
something to just fess up right away so that other people aren't
wasting their time" because of that student's mistake.
are a popular tool for ethics instruction, and there
are several sources from which professors can obtain them. Ellen
R. Fisher, an associate chemistry professor at Colorado State
University (CSU), Fort Collins, uses case studies drawn from "On
Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research," a booklet
published by the National Research
Council. Fisher also has collaborated with CSU associate chemistry
professor Nancy E. Levinger to develop case studies based on their
own experiences or incidents that others have brought to their
Fisher's students dissect the case studies in class--and the
discussions can get fairly heated. So Fisher is careful to caution
the students that "every individual's decision-making process
is based on their education, their culture, and their experience.
Just because somebody disagrees with you about the best course
of action doesn't mean that you're right and they're wrong."
||UNCERTAINTY Fitch adds up her weight, her
dog's weight, and the weight of a $20 bill to teach her chemistry
students about significant figures.
COURTESY OF ALANAH FITCH/LOYOLA
in background may put what one person would consider
to be an ethical misstep in a different, possibly forgivable,
light. For instance, "there are some cultures that do not see
plagiarism as a negative thing," Fisher explained. "They see it
more as a form of flattery. In cultures that have developed around
a symbolic language versus words, it isn't always clear that copying
somebody's words is in essence copying their ideas."
Another source of case studies is the Journal of Chemical
Education. One case Fisher drew from the journal follows the
exploits of two general chemistry students as they work their
way through a series of labs. In the first example, they drop
a couple of data points that don't fit with the other data they
collected. In another instance, they make up a data point. And
in the third experiment, they introduce a fudge factor to "correct"
some of their data.
Fisher asks her students which of these actions is most or
least defensible, then leads them to the realization that none
of the actions is appropriate. The discussion moves on to the
correct way to report data, including the notion that scientists
have legitimate ways to report and quantify error.
Another case Fisher uses is based on an incident that occurred
at CSU in which a postdoc deleted another postdoc's data because
of a disagreement about instrument time. Worse, his punishment
"was so minimal as to almost be nonexistent," Fisher said. "He
was basically put on two weeks' leave without pay." Like the University
of Michigan students, Fisher's students are shocked to hear about
such behavior. They say, "Oh my God, I can't believe somebody
would do that!"
Toward the end of the training, Fisher discusses cases of misconduct
that have come up in the news. One example she uses came to light
a couple of years ago when it was discovered that Bell Labs physicist
Jan Hendrik Schön, working in the field of molecular electronics,
had apparently fabricated data.
"We can then talk about what that does to the public perception
of scientists," Fisher said.
Case studies that don't resonate with the undergraduates' own
worldview don't work well, Fisher noted. One such case revolves
around the premise that a grad student is upset because his labmate
has developed a romantic relationship with their adviser. The
student ultimately decides to bring the situation to the attention
of the department chair, who handles the matter poorly.
"Not only do students struggle with the concept that anybody
might want to have a relationship with a professor," Fisher said
with a laugh, "they also have trouble putting themselves in the
shoes of an authority figure. It's hard for them to relate to
the obligations that the department chair has to the institution."
CSU's chemistry department provides this ethics training for
its seniors in a capstone seminar course. The university also
works the subject into its summer research program for undergraduates
and is beginning to introduce it in a freshman seminar course.
In the summer course, ethics training is focused on issues that
come up in a lab context. The program for seniors extends the
training beyond that environment to topics such as publishing
At Loyola University of Chicago,
issues of ethics are addressed in, among other places, an instrumental
analysis course taught by chemistry professor Alanah
Fitch. The impact of ethical decision-making is brought to
life for Fitch's students, who work with her on environmental
assessment projects in the local community. Often the projects
involve collection of dust or soil samples to analyze for lead
contamination in the neighborhood.
Such work entails obligations and responsibilities that don't
arise in the consideration of ethics case studies and learning
scenarios, Fitch noted. These obligations extend both to students,
who help in the collection and analysis of samples from the community,
and to community members, who have an interest in the students'
findings. "The hard part is making certain that one gets enough
samples, from the ethical and statistical point of view, without
overburdening the students," Fitch said. Ethical consideration
of her students doesn't stop there. Fitch has to guard against
her students becoming obsessed with the work as they get more
deeply involved in the research and its implications for neighborhood
residents. "They can't spend all of their time on this only,"
she said. "They have other things to accomplish in college."
Beyond that, Fitch and her students have to think about the
ramifications of providing the data to the community members.
"Do we owe them something beyond just the numbers? Do we owe them
some public health education, some interpretation? We decided
we owe the community something," Fitch said. "Otherwise we're
doing scare science."
Ethics has a sneaky way of working its way into just about
everything the students do. Their attitude about their obligations
and the way in which the students view the data that they collect
is swayed by the nature of the community relationships formed
during a particular project, according to Fitch.
For instance, one group of students collected samples on behalf
of a community group whose members they didn't meet. The samples
were collected to determine whether a municipal waste incinerator
released lead into the local environment. In analyzing and interpreting
the data, Fitch said, the students tended to make comments such
as, "Well, the scientists placed the incinerator there, so it
must be okay."
But a second group of students who worked directly with homeowners,
including an elderly woman whose grandchildren had been exposed
to lead from the soil in her garden, wanted the incinerator shut
down--even when it became clear from the data they collected that
the lead must have come from old house paint and not from the
It's important for faculty who conduct such service projects
in communities to be aware of the influence of face-to-face contact
and emotion on both data collection and conclusions. "Interpretations
of data are rarely neutral and scientific," Fitch said. "The best
we can hope for is to suspect ourselves at all times." She makes
sure her students become aware of these issues by bringing them
out into the open in class.
buys into the idea that ethics is a teachable subject--particularly
as late as college, let alone graduate school. Some people believe
"it's impossible to teach ethics because everybody comes morally
formed when they come to college, and there's nothing you can do"
by that point to influence behavior, Coppola noted.
PHOTO BY ALAN L. KISTE, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
Even if ethics training can make a difference at such a late
stage, it is difficult to measure the training's impact, though
some tests are available. At a minimum, such tests can demonstrate
a familiarity with the subject--comprehension of the difference
between fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, for instance,
or acknowledgment that these actions constitute academic misconduct,
At Michigan, faculty members who obtain certain kinds of federal
research funding must go through an online training and certification
program called the Program for Education & Evaluation in Responsible
Research & Scholarship (http://www.research.umich.edu/training/peerrs.html)
before the funds can be released. Module topics include conflict
of interest and animal research.
Regardless of the career stage of the trainee, training in
ethical issues "sensitizes people to the fact that these are things
that they can discuss, that they can practice them with cases
in a safe setting," Coppola said. "Then when the real situations
come up, they are presumably better able to work their way out
of the situations than if they encounter the problems for the
first time in the workplace, never having thought of these things
before and then making bad decisions that are driven by personal
gain, cover-ups," and so forth.
Students at CSU have told Fisher that "when they go in the
lab, they have a much heightened awareness of what they're doing.
They're thinking, 'Is it appropriate to do this?' or 'Should I
drop this data point?' or 'Should I put in a fudge factor?' "
If nothing else, Coppola said, ethics education "puts the things
you do at the level of a conscious act."