APS News

Ask the Ethicist

Editor's Note: Please send ethical questions for Jordan Moiers or comments to: ethics@aps.org, or by mail to Jordan Moiers, c/o APS News, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Contributors should identify themselves, but their names and addresses will be held strictly confidential unless they request otherwise. The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of either the APS or APS News.

"A couple of years ago I was writing a paper and disliked the look of a figure a collaborator had made. Since I had set up the apparatus he was using, I knew how to access the raw data and downloaded it in order to make a more attractive plot. When I did so, I was shocked to see that the data that were presented in the figure as being from one specimen were actually from three different specimens. He had created a false impression of reversibility by gathering together data that were actually on different samples.

At this point I was faced with an ethical dilemma: I could confront the co-worker and ask him for an explanation; I could denounce him openly and demand that he retract his paper; or do nothing. In fact I did nothing but tell another co-worker about the incident. I didn't confront the fabricator because I wasn't interested in hearing his concocted explanation. The problem of retraction of the paper was a more difficult question since like others I wish that the published literature was free of falsehoods.

However, the published result was fairly obscure and appeared in a widely unread conference proceeding, not a refereed journal. In the end, I couldn't see what a confrontation would accomplish except create hard feelings. Was my decision wrong?"
(Name and address withheld)

Jordan Moiers responds:
In a nutshell; yes, your decision was wrong. But you don't really need me to tell you that, do you? (After all, you were shocked by your co-worker's data manipulation.) To quote the APS Ethics guidelines, "All coauthors have an obligation to provide prompt retractions or correction of errors in published works. Any individual unwilling or unable to accept appropriate responsibility for a paper should not be a coauthor." It's often difficult to take the high ethical road, but you should certainly have done something: confront your co-worker, involve your supervisor, retract the paper, or withdraw as coauthor.

The implicit question you're asking is "how wrong was it to do nothing?" On the Richter scale of ethics violations, yours was small. The ethical tremors that result from an indiscretion in a paper in an un-refereed, widely-unread collection of conference proceedings are probably undetectable outside of your small corner of the research community. Bear in mind, however, that you are at ground zero. A widely-unread paper is, by definition, narrowly read—by your colleagues, supervisors, students, and possibly even friends and family. In short, the only people likely to read the paper are probably the people most important in your life and career. Maybe you'll be lucky and nobody will ever read the paper. What the heck, why not "strive" to write papers that will never be read at all? Even better, you could choose to work on unimportant research, write low-quality papers, and bury them in a hole where they'll never see the light of day.

I hope you would rather strive to contribute to the advancement of science. There is a saying among theater folk that there are no small roles, only small actors. The same is true of research and researchers. Your co-worker has shown that he is one of the small researchers. You are in danger of going down the same path, so long as you act as though your work is too trivial to rise to accepted ethical standards in physics. It may be too late to correct the paper you published in the obscure conference proceedings, but it's not too late raise your own ethical standards.

The recent APS Task Force on Professional Ethics recommended that APS work with physics departments to improve education on ethical issues that affect the physics community. If you have experience or interest in developing materials to help students understand and confront such issues and would be willing to help with this task, please contact Ken Cole, Special Assistant to the Executive Officer, at cole@aps.org.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette