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By Ernie Tretkoff
Few physicists received formal ethics training as part of their education, though many are concerned about professional ethics, a study by the APS Ethics Task Force has found.
The task force report was submitted to and accepted by the APS Council at its meeting in November.
The task force, which was convened in November 2002 in response to two highly publicized incidents of data falsification, used surveys and interviews of members of the physics community to ascertain the state of ethics education and awareness.
"Ethics" was defined broadly to include not just research misconduct such as data fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, but also issues such as authorship, proper credit of previous work, and data handling and reporting. "This was an interesting and sobering project," said task force chair Frances Houle of the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose.
The surveys collected information from physics department chairs, APS unit leadership, undergraduates, junior members and corporations and national labs.
The task force decided to focus on junior members (those within the first 3 years after receiving a PhD) because they have recently come through the educational system and are starting their professional careers. "We targeted that group because they really capture both worlds," said Houle.
Overall, the survey found professional ethics education was informal. Two-thirds of junior members said they had never had any formal ethics training, and more than 80% of undergraduates said they had received no training.
Many did receive instruction on acceptable methods of data recording, handling, and reporting, most often in laboratory courses. Seventy-eight percent of undergraduates and 52% of junior members said they had received such instruction in lab courses, and 75% of department chairs said professional ethics was addressed in lab courses at their institutions.
Though ethics is not included in formal education, it is clearly an area of concern in the physics community. Most members, including 78% of undergraduates and 87% of junior members, said they had discussed ethics issues informally. About half of department chairs said ethics had been discussed more than casually within their departments in the past two years.
"I think that the two most important results are that training in professional ethics is largely informal in physics, and that the junior members, who are the future of the field, care passionately," said Houle.
Ethics violations are far from unheard of — About 10% of department chairs said their institutions had experienced cases of misconduct in the past 10 years, and about 40% of junior members said they had observed an ethics violation.
The most common problems cited were putting non-authors on a paper or excluding student's names from papers to which they had contributed. Only 4% of junior members knew of falsification of data.
Many survey respondents (23%) considered falsification of data as the most serious ethics violation, and another 23% listed treatment of subordinates in research groups as one of the most serious issues.
Some respondents worried that the pressure to publish "flashy" research in high profile journals can result in improperly analyzed data and overstated claims.
Another frequently mentioned concern was the refereeing process, in which scientists often review papers by their competitors, possibly leading to conflicts of interest.
The APS has statements on ethics and guidelines for professional conduct, which can be found at http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/index.cfm. However, about 80% of department chairs did not know if their faculties were aware of or had read the APS ethics guidelines. Most junior members (61%) were aware of APS statements but only 20% had read the statements.
There is a well-defined process for handling ethics violations in APS journals, and 67% of department chairs said their institutions had procedures for handling professional misconduct.
When asked what could be done to improve professional ethics, some survey respondents said ethics education was key, while others questioned whether training could change people's behavior.
Based on these survey results, the task force made several recommendations, which include: expanding APS ethics statements to include treatment of subordinates, social responsibility of physicists, and intellectual property issues; developing short-term and long-term ethics education programs; working with the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and other organizations to develop international ethics standards; and considering having a formal standing committee on ethics.
In January two Ethics Task Force members will meet with the Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) to review the report. POPA will be involved in determining an action plan.
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