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Research in physics depends on widely held values of integrity and honesty among participants. Without these values, the enterprise becomes suspect, and its results are mistrusted. It is important that as scientists and educators, we demand ethical behavior on the part of all participants in all aspects of our enterprise.
Recent events have demonstrated that it is no longer sufficient to take for granted that participants are aware of what constitutes ethical behavior. For this reason, the APS Task Force on Ethics Education has put together this collection of case studies, which provide an introduction to some of the issues that practicing physicists might encounter.
It is useful to draw the analogy between ethics education and safety training. Undoubtedly, most physicists have an inherent desire to be safe, but the extent to which safety procedures are practiced in the lab depends on a range of factors, including prior experience and an understanding of what appropriate procedures are and what harm may come from failing to follow them.
Formal safety training is often useful to fill in the gaps not filled by prior experience. Likewise, ethics education can play the role of providing information not available from prior experience. This role is especially important for those just beginning in the field.
The reality is that ethical behavior in some instances is compromised by pressures to publish and discover, as well as by the prospect of financial gain from commercialization of certain research discoveries. The problem is complicated by the fact that researchers may be confronted with choices in which the ethical route is not obvious. There are also differences between practices in various sub-disciplines, especially in the area of authorship of papers.