Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ethical Puzzles

The US Office of Research Integrity has been posting questions on research ethics on its blog. Take a look at a couple of recent examples:

  • Being Recruited by the Competitor of a Sponsor. Conflict of Interest?

  • A graduate student completes a dissertation based on research that was partly funded by a corporate sponsor. After graduation, the student is offered a job working for another corporation that competes with the first. There can be no doubt that the dissertation and experience with a competitor’s research played a role in this offer. Is there a conflict? Does it matter whether the student personally received any funding from the corporate sponsor?

    This one is easy. Employees leave and join competitors of their former employers all the time. This case is no different, and there is no conflict for the student: she has already done the work for which she received stipend / payment, and it's now time to move on to the world of work -- either with the sponsor or someone else. Short of making an attractive counter-offer, all that the sponsor is entitled to is for the student to know and respect her professional / contractual obligations -- for example, non-disclosure agreements that she might have signed.

  • Advisor Steals Student's Work. What Would You Do?

    A graduate student prepares a research proposal as part of her dissertation requirements. Her faculty advisor reviews the proposal but otherwise provides only minimal assistance in developing the concept. The student later learns that her advisor has paraphrased sections of her proposal and incorporated them into his own application to a different funding agency. How should the student respond?

    This one is tricky. There are very few options for the student, and they are all ugly. In a conflict between a student and her advisor, the 'system' tends to take the latter's side, and the price of calling out misconduct could be pretty high for the student. I am not at all sure how she should react.


  1. Giri@iisc said...

    When I applied for promotion from Asst Prof. to Assoc. Prof. in the chemical engineering department in IISc, senior faculty in the department refused to process my application unless I submit reviewer comments for all the papers I had published. They probably thought that the only way I would have published papers is if I have married the daughters of all the editors of the major journals and the papers were not sent for review.

    Though I did submit the reviewer comments for all my papers, I knew this issue would come up for my next promotion also. Therefore, I requested a senior professor in my department to enquire whether the above practice (and followed only for my case) is ethical. The professor did write to the above agency and http://www.researchethics.ca/ and the response was quick and explanatory: It is unethical, the faculty is forced to submit because he fears repercussions. Further the comments of the reviewers can vary widely, and the editor makes a judicious decision because he knows the identity and the standing of the reviewer.

    The moral of the story: Many senior scientists did not (or do not want to) know that the case is unethical and we depend on someone telling us about ethics. If this happens in a top institution, what happens elsewhere in India? The answer is simple: there is no ethics.

  2. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Giri - that is a shocking story and it sounds like harassment. If it is a uniform policy I don't know that I'd call it "unethical" (I'd certainly call it stupid) but, if it was followed only for your case, certainly it was unethical (because it was discriminatory). And you say senior scientists do not (or don't want to) see that?

  3. Giri@iisc said...

    Rahul, thanks for your comments. Maybe I can convert this from an unethical practice to a stupid practice by asking for reviewer comments for all the papers published by the assistant professors in our department when their case comes up for promotion :-) :-)

    According to major publishers, publication of reviewer comments or the use of reviewer comments for other kinds of evaluations is completely unethical. This is because the reviewer may respond differently if a career is on the line versus when a paper is on the line. I may call a paper junk but that is not saying the researcher is worthless.

  4. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Giri - the unethical part is using the reviewer's review for another purpose than what it was meant for, without consent. The stupid part would be thinking that (a) a review of an individual paper is a reflection on a career, and even more so, (b) an anonymous review has more importance than the impact of the paper after publication.

    PLoS ONE encourages reviewers to allow their reviews to be posted as comments after publication, and also to drop their anonymity (the choice is theirs). It doesn't seem to have caught on yet, but if it does, obviously those reviews are available to the world and could even be potentially useful in career evaluation -- ie the use need not be stupid. (PLoS ONE argues that the importance of a paper is best measured after it is published, so they care only about correctness as a criterion for publication.)

  5. Anant said...

    Dear Giri@iisc,

    I think that your comments here are seriously off topic. The main issue is that IISc has no (clear-cut?) policy on what is idiotically termed as `out of term' promotion, rather than `early' or `accelerated' promotion. In these circumstances, often departments do not know what to do when a colleague wants to be considered for such early promotion. I do not know the circumstances of your case, but I seriously doubt that your senior colleagues were `unethical'. Perhaps they thought that this is the best way of going ahead. Perhaps other departments would have gone about it in a different way. The main point is that there really is no policy...so in these circumstances what is a department to do? In any event there is an old saying that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.

    If we were to be on-topic here, we should debate the seriousness of massaging data, selecting part of data and suppressing other parts, outright fabrication, etc..

    Regards, Anant

  6. Anant said...

    Just an addendum: for some reason I assumed that it was about a `out of turn' promotion. I may have been wrong about the assumption.

    In any case, I still feel that the issue here is not one of ethics, but of administrative procedure. The issue of ethics arises where there is an element of cheating or subterfuge. What I feel about the case Giri@iisc describes is that of administrative procedure and ham-handedness. Of course I could be wrong which is a possibility that I admit.

  7. Giri@iisc said...

    Dear Prof. Anant:

    If the blog owner thinks my comments are off topic, he is free to delete the comments. I have no objection to this.

    If there are no clear cut policies, can one frame any rules and try to use reviewer comments to judge a career? As Rahul points out "the unethical part is using the reviewer's review for another purpose than what it was meant for, without consent." I can point to several links from publishers which show that using reviewer comments for other purposes is considered unethical.

    The reason for my comment was because the above agency was contacted with my case for clarification. Unlike you, the organization did not say this is seriously off topic but actually replied with clarifications.

    I did not claim that my colleagues are unethical when they did this but all I said was they had to contact some agency based in US/Canada to advise us on what is ethics.

    Anyway, the blog owner is free to decide whether the comments are off topic or not and make a decision to keep it or delete it.

    Thank you very much


  8. Anant said...

    Dear Giri@iisc,

    I am contesting that you were an aggrieved party in the case you describe. My opinion is that this was not a question of ethical behaviour, but as you say that experts you contacted believed that it was. So there is room for debate, and also the possibility that I am wrong.

    The way to go forward is to document the facts of the case and bring them to the attention of the authorities. And more importantly to articulate the need for a policy. In the absence of real policy, matters will be exactly as you describe --- departments will simply make up ad hoc policies that are simply silly, wrong, or even unethical.

    Sorry that you felt that I suggested that your comments should be deleted. What I meant about being off-topic is that perhaps this subject deserves a separate post with various aspects presented and set up a forum for discussion.

    Best, Anant

  9. Anant said...

    Of course that should have been "I am NOT contesting..."

  10. Rahul Siddharthan said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  11. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Anant - so you seem to be saying that senior scientists at IISc are incapable of evaluating their junior colleagues without being given "policies" (which means they are unaware of practices elsewhere), and in the absence of such policies, they "will" "make up ad hoc policies that are simply silly, wrong, or even unethical"... er, so remind me, why is IISc supposed to be one of our top science institutions?

  12. Rajesh Venkata Palam said...

    A lack of policies allows them to make up ad hoc "silly, wrong and even unethical" methods. This is how senior faculty in IISc think?

    Jeez, a new IIT does not yet have a sexual harassment policy. Does that give senior professors the right to harass the girls studying there?

    Giri@iisc, in his original post, mentions that this practice was followed only in his case meaning people who applied for "out of turn" (or otherwise) promotion before and after him were not subjected to this humiliating practice. This is a clear case of harassment and discrimination.

    That he has waited for 10 years before revealing it probably indicates he feared repercussions.

  13. Anant said...

    Gosh! I am sorry that this discussion has gone off entirely into the rights and wrongs of IISc. This seems to be my own contribution to taking the discussion `seriously off topic'.

    Rahul: I think IISc being in the top bracket has to do with the research output of the place. Whether or not colleagues are capable of evaluating junior colleagues rightly or wrongly is a different matter. Whether or not a place is a top Institute, I believe that policies have to be in place, failing which there will be aberrations or harassment or whatever.

    Rajesh: please do not stretch analogies to make whatever another person is saying sound absurd. There is no connection between what I am saying that gender harassment. Besides, whether or not a new IIT has its own policy or not, it is bound by the laws of the land. As such, your argument does not even apply.

    Lest I have given the impression I do not sympathize with victims, let me clarify that this is not the case. My claim was that the issue in this case was not of ethics in the sense of Abi's original post, of data fabrication, etc., which would have required a serious enquiry.

    I will not have anything more to add.

    Sorry for consuming so much bandwidth.

  14. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Anant: you say "I think that your comments here are seriously off topic." You say Rajesh is "stretching analogies". You say "the issue in this case was not of ethics in the sense of Abi's original post, of data fabrication, etc." even though neither example in Abi's post was about data fabrication, and the first example doesn't even seem unethical (as Abi observes).

    And then you walk off in a huff. Well done.

    Two aspects of Giri's story were called out as unethical: that the reports were demanded for a different purpose than their original purpose and without the consent of the reviewer or journal; and that this demand was not made of everyone but only of Giri. Your answer, apparently, is that this is not unethical because there was no policy in place! I think Rajesh's analogy to that argument is fine.

    Do you have a better reason for not regarding it as unethical?

  15. Rajesh Venkata Palam said...

    Anant says, "Besides, whether or not a new IIT has its own policy or not, it is bound by the laws of the land. As such, your argument does not even apply."

    I am surprised that senior professors like you in IISc are unable to differentiate between laws of land and institutional policies. Let me give you an example. In the US school in which I used to teach, dating (or having relationships with) any students (who are above 18) of my class is forbidden by institutional policies and not by the law of the land. This is termed as sexual harassment. If I break the rule, I can be thrown out of my university but not arrested by the police.

    According to you, if institutional policies had not existed in my place, I was free to date and engage in these unethical practices ! You seem to harp on institutional policies and seem to justify the unethical practices of a few of the senior professors due to lack of these policies.

  16. Anant said...

    Rajesh: let me break my promise one more time and respond to you. I think both you and I have the same objective, which is that individuals should not be harassed or subjected to unethical practises. I don't know about the US, but around here, one can face severe repurcussions if there is evidence of harassment of the sexual kind, whether or not an Institute has policies. There are innumerable Supreme Court judgements of this kind.

    Returning to the `seriously off topic' subject of IISc's non-policy of `out of turn' promotion which is what I was talking about, the individual has no rights in this matter. Why X is considered and why Y is not considered, no one knows. In other words it is not a level playing field at all. To me this atleast as serious problem as the harassment of one individual in such a case. That is why I am pleading for an institutional policy on this matter. Why spend so much time of IISc, a microscopic Institute with a couple of hundred faculty? Because as Rahul has said it is somehow considered a premier Institute or whatever reason, and what it does will be a beacon for other Institutions in the country.

  17. Anant said...

    Rahul: one more breaking of my promise. I was not walking away in a huff. As I mentioned earlier, I think that this should be the subject of a separate post. Finally, as I mentioned time and again, maybe I am wrong, and these actions were actually unethical. It simply had to be established. Now the reader can decide for himself or herself whether that is the case.