APS News

APS Expands and Updates Ethics and Professional Conduct Guidelines for Physicists

Prompted by recent highly publicized episodes of misconduct in physics, the APS has updated and expanded its professional ethics guidelines. The changes, adopted November 10, 2002, at the APS Council meeting, clarify the roles and responsibilities of coauthors, emphasize the importance of professional ethics education in the training of scientists, and suggest that all research institutions, regardless of funding sources, adopt policies consistent with the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct.

"We shall make a concerted effort over the next few years to better educate physicists in appropriate professional ethics, standards and practices," said APS President William Brinkman of the Council's action. "We also want to strongly encourage all institutions involved in physics research to define their policy and the processes that should be followed if fraud or other misconduct is detected. I feel that the revisions we have made to the APS guidelines are a step in the right direction."

The APS Council has adopted new Guidelines on the Responsibilities of Coauthors and Collaborators. The guidelines state that "all coauthors share some degree of responsibility for any paper they coauthor" and that "some coauthors have responsibility for the entire paper. These include, for example, coauthors who are accountable for the integrity of the critical data reported in the paper, carry out the analysis, write the manuscript, present major findings at conferences, or provide scientific leadership for junior colleagues."

"Coauthors who make specific, limited contributions to a paper are responsible for them but may have only limited responsibility for other results," the guidelines state. Furthermore, "any individual unwilling or unable to accept appropriate responsibility for a paper should not be a coauthor."

To assist coauthors in fulfilling their responsibilities, the APS Council resolved that, "Collaborations are expected to have a process to archive and verify the research record; to facilitate internal communication and allow authors to be fully aware of the entire work; and respond to questions concerning the joint work and enable other responsible scientists to share the data. All members of a collaboration should be familiar with, and understand, the process."

"These actions are our initial response to the recent findings of major research misconduct," said James Tsang, chair of the APS Panel on Public Affairs. "Those findings challenged many cherished assumptions and beliefs. We have reaffirmed our community's commitment to high professional standards and that such standards are essential to both good science and public confidence. We have extended previous guidelines in describing our expectations for professional conduct by physicists. Together with the recent unfortunate events, our actions make clear the professional consequences of research misconduct."

The APS Council believes that research misconduct is extremely damaging as it "diminishes the vital trust that scientists have in each other", "undermines public confidence in science" and "can lead significant numbers of scientists along fruitless paths" according to its new Statement on Policies for Handling Allegations of Research Misconduct. The Statement continues, "It is imperative, therefore, that the institutions responsible for the funding and performance of scientific research, as well as the relevant professional societies, take appropriate steps to discourage such conduct and have policies and procedures in place to deal with allegations of misconduct."

As concrete recommendations, the APS Council urges that all federal agencies complete their required implementations of misconduct policy and that all research institutions, regardless of funding, develop and implement plans consistent with the Federal Policy on Research Misconduct.

Some of the procedures the APS plans to implement are outlined in the newly adopted Statement on Improving Education for Professional Ethics, Standards and Practices. The APS calls on its members and units to actively promote education in this area, in line with its belief that "it is part of the responsibility of all scientists to ensure that all their students receive training" specifically in professional ethics and standards. The APS Council sees this as an ongoing project and is establishing a task force to monitor progress and consider new steps regarding ethics, standards and practices for the society. Serving on the task force will be Frances Houle, E. W. "Rocky" Kolb, Kate Kirby, and Joe Hamilton.

Online Resources:

APS Revised Guidelines on Professional Conduct

APS Statement on Policies for Handling Allegations of Research Misconduct

APS Statement on Improving Education for Professional Ethics, Standards and Practices

The Federal Policy on Research Misconduct

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette