Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teaching Research Ethics with guest blogger Kenneth D. Pimple

I have directed the annual Teaching Research Ethics Workshop (TRE) since its inception in 1993. Nearly 700 researchers, research administrators, and others have participated in the workshop.

For the first several years of the workshop, I was continually surprised at how many TRE participants were mystified by the idea of teaching ethics. I'm not surprised any more, but I still don't understand its cause. Sometimes the mystification manifests as frank hostility - "You can't teach anyone to be ethical. If they didn't learn it in kindergarten, it's too late." More often it comes out as simple cluelessness, as if they can't guess what "research ethics" might mean, let alone how it could be taught.

With few exceptions, I've seen the cloud of mystery lift without too much fuss. At its base, research ethics is perfectly simple. I've formulated a list of "the ten most important things to know about research ethics". The first five are

1. Be honest.

2. Be fair.

3. Do no harm.

4. Do good research.

5. Know and follow the rules.

The heretofore mystified one might say, "Well, isn't all of that obvious?" That's the point. Once the veil of mystery is lifted anyone can see that the core values of research are not profound, hard to grasp, or controversial. This takes off the pressure so we can face the more difficult issues without too much trepidation. For example, one might ask, "What does it mean to be honest?"

For everyday use, we can just accept that we know honesty and dishonesty when we see them, that we expect people to be honest, and that we don't respect people who aren't. To be sure, on extraordinary occasions, deciding (for example) whether a particular statement is honest can be challenging, fraught with nuance and subtle distinctions, and require learning some factual matters that are not easily uncovered - such as the intention of the speaker or writer(s) of the statement at the time the statement was made. The extraordinary cases are tough, but they also provide an intellectual challenge for the practice and teaching of research ethics.

There's a great deal more to research ethics than being honest and fair and following the rules, and teaching the "more" is what makes it interesting. But it also helps to remind everyone of the basics once in a while.

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