April 26, 2004
Volume 82, Number 17
pp. 33-35
  ETHICS 101
Ethics education makes its way into the college chemistry curriculum, but is that too late to start?

SENSITIZER Fisher teaches her students about the ethical attitudes of different cultures.
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, Calif.

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 exams.

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," Coppola said.

"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.

CASE STUDIES 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 attention.

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.

THESE DIFFERENCES 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 practices.

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 incinerator.

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.

NOT EVERYONE 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.

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, Coppola said.

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 ( 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."


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