APS News

APS Website Hosts Ethics Training Materials

By Gabriel Popkin

Physicists looking for ethics training materials have a new tool in their repertory. APS has published an activity and discussion guide based on a series of case studies describing ethical issues that can arise in the process of physics research. The case studies, which cover topics such as data acquisition, mentoring, publication practices, and responsible conduct of research, are designed to help physics faculty and others provide ethics training to undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers.

Ethics became an issue of significant concern for APS after the physics community was hit by two high-profile cases of data fabrication early in the last decade. In response, APS convened an Ethics Task Force, which surveyed the society’s junior membership about issues related to ethics. The task force found, among other things, that most survey respondents had not received formal ethics training; rather, they reported gaining exposure to the subject mostly through informal channels such as research group meetings or discussions with faculty or students.
Gray arrow  Junior Members Respond to APS Ethics Survey (APS News)

In response to the original task force’s findings and recommendations, APS convened a second group called the Task Force on Ethics Education, with a charge to advise APS on encouraging physics departments to improve ethics training, and to develop materials that would aid physics departments in these efforts. This group’s work culminated in a set of case studies describing hypothetical scenarios that might arise during the course of doing physics research, and in most cases a discussion of the various ethical issues that arise out of the scenario. The guide provides additional discussion, suggestions for activities such as role-plays, and further reading.

“My hope in developing these case studies was that we would not only raise issues but generate discussion,” says J. Marshall Thomsen, a professor of physics at Eastern Michigan University who was on the task force that developed the studies. This is reflected in the discussion sections that follow many of the scenarios in the studies, where multiple perspectives and courses of action are offered. “There are a number of situations where reasonable people can disagree about ethical issues,” says Thomsen.

The APS case studies also fill a need for ethics training materials that are relevant to physics—a need made more urgent by new requirements that all projects with funding from the National Science Foundation include provisions for ethics training. As Thomsen pointed out in a recent Physics Today blog post, much of the existing training material in science research ethics focuses on topics like human subjects research that are more common in biology. “Most physicists place a high priority on relevance when it comes to ethics,” writes Thomsen. He worries that without more relevant materials, “physicists will regard the required RCR [responsible conduct of research] education as an irrelevant bureaucratic exercise.”

Although no high-profile fraud cases in physics have surfaced since the two incidents in 2002, it is important that the physics community not become complacent about ethics, says Kate Kirby, APS Executive Officer and a member of the original Ethics Task Force. “APS has a critical role to play in continuing to raise the community’s consciousness about these important issues,” she says. “The ethical questions that arise in the course of physics research can be subtle, and often have no clear answers. These case studies promote conversations that we hope will help people in making good choices.”

The Ethics Case Studies activity and discussion guide comes in separate editions for teachers and students.
Gray arrow  Ethics Case Studies
Gray Arrow  Ethics Case Studies - Teacher Edition format_pdf
Gray Arrow  Ethics Case Studies - Student Edition format_pdf


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