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By Nan Phinney and Jeanette Russo
Attendees at the APS 2022 March Meeting.
The American Physical Society sets high standards for ethical behavior and professional integrity for all APS staff and members. Since 2018, the APS Ethics Committee—comprised of 12 APS members with diverse backgrounds—has overseen the implementation of ethics policies for APS, updated the community on best practices, and organized educational events and materials related to ethics.
As the committee’s Chair and staff advisor, we’ve seen firsthand that the physics community is not immune to misbehavior. In 2021, APS received about 60 complaints, ranging from suspected plagiarism, concerns about journal rejections and appeals, and code-of-conduct breaches at APS meetings. These incidents were reported by APS members, journal authors, meeting attendees, and APS staff.
For each complaint, the APS ombudsperson, relevant APS staff, or the full Ethics Committee reviewed and responded. For some, the APS ombudsperson—an independent legal expert, external to APS—led a successful mediation. For others, the Ethics Committee reviewed complaints and chose an appropriate course of action, sometimes recommending new policy. In three cases, the professional conduct disclosure policy uncovered potential misconduct by a candidate for an APS honor or appointment; one of those candidates was disqualified.
Also in late 2021, the committee, for the first time, received requests for revocation—in other words, appeals for individuals who don’t meet expectations of ethical behavior to be stripped of APS honors, leadership positions, or membership. The committee is reviewing these requests now.
Much work remains. For example, the committee must clarify policies regarding people who enable unethical behaviors in others, as well as clarify penalties for people who have violated standards but whose actions don’t warrant a revocation. The committee must develop clearer procedures for handling misconduct and ensure that members know these procedures.
This is difficult work. Committee discussions can be tough and uncomfortable, and gray areas abound. On multiple occasions, the committee has had to navigate uncharted territory, relying heavily on the expertise of the APS ombudsperson. We are listening and learning.
But it’s also vital work. After all, APS’s ethical guidelines reflect the Society’s enduring goals: to promote truthfulness and respect and ensure that the physics community is welcoming to all.
If you believe you have witnessed or experienced an ethics violation, review the APS Guidelines on Ethics. To report a breach of APS ethics standards at an APS event, visit aps.ethicspoint.com; to report another form of ethics violation, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nan Phinney is Chair of the APS Ethics Committee. Jeanette Russo is APS Corporate Secretary.
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