University At Buffalo Course In Research Ethics Focuses On Scientific Dishonesty And Fraud

Release Date: October 20, 1994 This content is archived.


"Our goal is to get students to see that ethical issues are inherent in scientific research, not just a humanistic overlay that's supposed to make them well-rounded." -- Richard Hull, associate professor of philosophy

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A team of university researchers is about to publish a scientific paper. The chair of the department, to whom the researchers report, wants to be named as an author. He has not, however, contributed to the paper's premise, methodology, study design, findings or preparation. Should he be listed on the paper?

The real-life solution to the problem in most instances is to include the chair as a co-author. The easiest way to solve the dilemma, it's also unethical, says a group of students who have just completed a rigorous research ethics course at the University at Buffalo.

As a final class project, the students had to develop authorship guidelines for collaborative research by applying philosophical principles, such as Kant's Deontological theory, which holds that it is wrong to lie, even to save another person's life. The students concluded that a far more stringent policy on authorship -- one that would preclude the listing of the fictitious department chair as a co-author -- should be adopted by scientific institutions.

With the controversy continuing over the use of fraudulent data in a major multi-center breast-cancer study, some say that a formal grounding in ethics for scientists, such as that provided by the UB course, is long overdue.

"Science is in deep trouble with the public," said David J. Triggle, Ph.D., dean of the UB School of Pharmacy, State University of New York distinguished professor and a developer of the course. "The public's perception that there is dishonesty and fraud in science is being translated into a political perception. If science is going to rescue itself, this kind of ethics course must be taught."

Government agencies require that institutions receiving their funding offer some kind of ethics training. Programs at most universities, however, have not progressed very far beyond the planning stages.

The course being offered by the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy is one of the few that has.

Required of any student who is working on a training grant for the National Institutes of Health, the demanding, four-credit seminar is targeted primarily at candidates for the Ph.D. and Pharm.D. degrees, though candidates for M.D./Ph.D degrees also participate. Beginning with the fall semester, the course will be open to students in all biomedical research sciences across the university.

Triggle believes the course is one of very few in the U.S. requiring students to spend a full semester thinking about -- and confronting -- difficult ethical dilemmas. Students must attend lectures and discussion groups. At semester's end, groups of students present policies that they have designed for hypothetical situations, such as defending their research to the public and reacting to opposition from animal-rights activists and others.

The fact that Triggle's next-door neighbor in suburban Clarence is Richard T. Hull, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and assistant professor of medicine at UB, spurred a close collaboration between pharmacy and philosophy faculty on the project.

"Our goal is to get students to see that ethical issues are inherent in scientific research, not just a humanistic overlay that's supposed to make them well-rounded," said Hull.

"We want them to know that they will be held accountable for their behavior with animals and with humans, for their selection of research goals and for their treatment of data and decisions regarding publication."

Funded by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the UB Graduate School and the UB School of Pharmacy, the course features national experts, some of whom present opinions that are not in the scientific mainstream.

For example, this past semester students heard Ron Allison of Physicians for Responsible Medicine advocate the elimination of animals from all medical research. To bolster his argument, he noted that if animal studies had been required when aspirin was first being marketed, the wonder drug might never have made it onto the drugstore shelf because it is lethal to cats.

"It's a radical argument," Hull acknowledges, "but we want to confront students now, while they're still in training. They will have to be accountable to a public that is listening to these spokespeople. We want them to come to terms with their skeptics."

Other experts have included Robert Levine, Yale University professor of medicine, who focused on informed consent in clinical trials, and James Lindemann Nelson, an associate for ethical studies at the Hastings Center, who discussed the ethics of choosing research goals.

"What's unusual about this course is that it deals not just with professional conflicts, but with a whole spectrum of ethical conflicts," said Marcel LaFollette, Ph.D., author of Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. An associate research professor

"Ethical" authorship guidelines and other projects developed by students in the UB Research Ethics Seminar will be presented during poster sessions and panel discussions on June 6-7 at a "Convocation on Scientific Conduct" to be held at National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC. Media are welcome. For further information, contact Mark Parsons at the NAS at 202-334-2138.

of science and technology policy at George Washington University, she was a guest lecturer in the course this past semester.

LaFollette said that while at many universities the more senior professors teach ethics classes, she was pleased to see the enthusiasm of young faculty involved in the UB course.

"It's obvious that this is an approved activity at UB and that is to be applauded," she said.

As for the students, Triggle said reaction has been mixed.

"Some students say, 'I don't cheat and I don't want to know about anybody that does,'" he said. "But some are starting to say that these are things they never thought about before. It's a demanding course and it requires a certain maturity to see where some of these speakers are coming from."

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