Chemistry, like any discipline, has a social structure. It relies on the interactions, behaviors, and expectations of individuals in order to function. Every social structure has a code of practices that constitutes its behavioral norms, that is, a set of rules governing what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. These rules are the moral philosophy of that social structure. When people find themselves in a situation in which there is a conflict or dilemma, the decision-making processes that they use to make the behavioral choices that follow are called ethical decision-making skills. Ethics, then, is the process whereby an individual, faced with a moral dilemma, arrives at a morally defensible decision.

What do these ideas have to do with science? The answer is that science as an undertaking is a quite human process that relies on many decisions. For example, progress in science relies on the complete honesty of those who report their experimental results, because (among other reasons) those results are key to the understanding of the natural phenomena under investigation. In addition, because scientific results are generally made public and accessible to all, it is extremely important that scientific results are trustworthy. If results are not reported honestly, then anyone who uses these results in his or her work has had his or her trust violated, and the injured party has wasted time and other resources. When the results impact a field such as medicine, or bear on product safety, an immense number of people could be put in harm's way because of decisions made on the basis of false information.

A scientist's past experience of ethical decision making is embedded in every value judgment he or she makes, large and small. Aspects of scientific enterprise that require ethical decision making encompass a broad range of responsibilities, including experiment design, the interpretation and reporting

Stem cell research, a recent technological advance in which cells are grown to generate new tissue, has the scientific community facing new ethical issues.
Stem cell research, a recent technological advance in which cells are grown to generate new tissue, has the scientific community facing new ethical issues.

of data, interactions between collaborators, and the evaluation of colleagues.

When a scientist "cheats" for any reason, for instance by making up results or excluding selected data, the entire process of science is shaken. Other scientists and laypeople will make decisions based on the false reports that are generated, and these decisions could have devastating consequences. Imagine someone overseeing a clinical trial designed to test a medical treatment not disclosing a harmful side effect. Also imagine that people might actually be harmed because of such a nondisclosure. There are many reasons why a scientist might choose not to disclose potentially hurtful information. Perhaps he or she stands to make a financial profit from the sale of this medical treatment. Perhaps he or she is being pressured by a supervisor to report false results and is under threat of being fired. Personal gain at the expense of others is often the crux of willful misrepresentation of scientific experiments.

The use of human and animal subjects in drug testing is an area in which scientists must practice ethical reasoning in order to explore complex and contradictory ideas. There are all sorts of views held by all sorts of people on whether drug testing should be conducted on living beings. It is important for scientists to consider the moral philosophies that underlie these different perspectives, as they will have to make the decisions to proceed (or not) with such testing. Apart from the responsibilities of scientists, a non-scientist must sometimes decide, for example, whether she or he wants to be part of an organization that participates in such testing.

Topical Categories

Some ethical reasoning topics have been well debated over time, although every new technological advance spawns a new set of debates (for example, debates having to do with the uses of genetic information or research

Demonstrators outside George Washington University Hospital, Washington, D.C., protesting embryonic stem cell research.
Demonstrators outside George Washington University Hospital, Washington, D.C., protesting embryonic stem cell research.

involving stem cells). A violation of the standards of ethical scientific practice is called scientific misconduct. Some major categories of scientific misconduct, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, are:

  • Falsification of data. Data fabrication (creating data that never existed). Selective reporting of findings. Omission of data that conflicts with other data (leaving out information in order to make one's story seem better). Willful suppression of data (not revealing relevant information) and/or distortion of data (exaggeration, for example).
  • Plagiarism. Stealing the language, ideas, or thoughts of another and representing them as one's original work.
  • Improprieties of authorship. Giving credit improperly or not giving credit at all in published materials. Publishing the same results in more than one place and claiming that each is an exclusively published report. Listing as authors individuals who have not made a definite contribution to the work published. Submission of multiauthored manuscripts to publishers without the agreement of all authors on the content of the text.
  • Misappropriation of the ideas of others. An important aspect of scholarly activity is the exchange of ideas among colleagues. New ideas gleaned from such exchanges can lead to important discoveries. Scholars also acquire new ideas during the review of grant applications and scientific manuscripts. Improper use of information acquired in these ways could constitute fraud. Wholesale stealing of such material constitutes scientific misconduct.
  • Violation of generally accepted research practices. Serious deviation from accepted practices in proposing or carrying out research. Any manipulation of experiments to bring about desired results. Deceptive statistical or analytical manipulation of results or improper reporting of results.
  • Material failure to comply with federal requirements affecting research. Includes but is not limited to serious or substantial, repeated and/or willful violations involving the use of funds, care of animals, human subjects, investigational drugs, genetic products, new devices, or radioactive, biologic, or chemical materials.
  • Inappropriate behavior in relation to misconduct. An inappropriate accusation of misconduct. Failure to report known or suspected misconduct. Withholding or destroying information relevant to a claim of misconduct. Retaliation against any person taking part in the allegation or investigation.
  • Deliberate misrepresentation of qualifications, experience, or research accomplishments (one's own or another's) to advance a research program, to obtain external funding, or to further other professional advancement.
  • Misappropriation of funds or other resources. For example, use of funds for personal gain.

An Example from Practice

The reproducibility of results is a hallmark of establishing reliable knowledge in scientific practice. In 2000 Professor Gérard Buono reported the results of a series of experiments carried out by him and his coworkers in France (Buono et al. 2000, p. 2554). In late 2001, Buono published a retraction of these results (Buono 2001, p. 4536). The retraction and accompanying story recounted in the text are an example of the self-correcting nature of ethical scientific practices. Buono describes how he was contacted by the editor of the journal that published the results and by Professor ScottE. Denmark, a scientific leader in the relevant area of chemistry who had not been able to reproduce the experimental results. In his retraction Buono writes, "At this stage, I asked my co-workers to check the experimental procedures and analytical conditions and to try to reproduce the described results. I was provided with experimental data and material that fully confirmed our original claims." After repetition of the experiments and upon close examination of his students' work, however, Buono saw evidence of error. He writes that he "noticed several inconsistencies with the analytical material the students had previously provided. Therefore, I decided to reproduce personally and independently the whole experimental procedures from the very beginning." Buono could not reproduce the results originally reported by him and his coworkers, but obtained the results reported by Denmark and his coworkers. Buono concluded this episode by writing that he wished "to withdraw [the original] communication. Other pieces of work based on related experimental results that were published elsewhere will also be withdrawn."

A Moral Education

Where and how do students learn about these ethics-related scientific practices? Historically, for scientists in training the process has been rather learn-as-you-go. It is generally assumed that senior scientists and teachers follow a code of defensible moral behavior and that, by their example, valuable lessons are transmitted to their students. Unfortunately, these assumptions are not necessarily valid, and cases of scientific misconduct surface in the news fairly regularly. By making ethical reasoning and the expectation of moral scientific behavior a more explicit part of education, it is hoped that the number of such cases can be reduced. The strategies for making rules of conduct explicit vary, and it is also hoped that many messages from many sources will impact the way scientists and future scientists make decisions.

In 1994 the editors of the Publications Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS) began publishing a series of articles titled "Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research" in ACS journals. (See, for example, the Journal of the American Chemical Society [1994] 116[13]: 8A–10A.) These guidelines, revised in January 2000, define the ethical obligations of each participant in the science community who is responsible for bringing a scientific publication to that community, namely, the editors, authors, reviewers, and scientists publishing in the more popular science venues. As stated in the introduction to these guidelines, one characteristic of a profession is for its members to have an accepted code of behaviors, responsibilities and obligations, to one another and to the public. The advancement of science requires sharing information in an utterly honest and open fashion. Editors need to give unbiased consideration to all scientific reports submitted for publication in a timely and fair manner. Those who have the privilege of reviewing unpublished scientific results cannot use or disclose that information prior to its publication. Reviewers must also be sensitive to conflicts of interest; for example, a reviewer should not review a manuscript if it is authored by a person with whom the reviewer has a close personal relationship, or a relationship which would otherwise bias the reviewer's ability to judge the manuscript fairly. Authors are obliged to provide an accurate and honest account of their work, with enough information so that reviewers and readers can properly evaluate the validity of the information and reproduce the results.

In scientific research, as in business and medicine, the writing of and analysis of case studies are an effective formal vehicle for ethics instruction. Students, having been given an authentic narrative scenario to consider and debate, can practice ethical reasoning as they think through the moral issues that have been raised by a particular case. A case study debated in a classroom is a safe proceeding, because it is not an actual circumstance in which a student might face serious personal consequences. Educators hope that students, having to think through ethics-related dilemmas in classroom settings, can acquire the reasoning skills they are going to need when they are confronted with actual situations. The following is an excerpt from a case study.

After only a few days in your new lab, you notice that one of the senior students is quite open about what appear to be many questionable experimental practices: he does not really keep a notebook, but numbers a new page for each reaction he performs and scribbles out a little information about what he had done, sometimes only the date and the starting time.…By now, his practices are quite well known in your particular lab room, and a number of jokes and asides by your labmates affirm your perceptions. Indeed, even the senior student has been heard to quip: "If I had done this the right way, I think the yield would have been 75%." When the research advisor comes to lab for a weekly update on progress, this student presents the data on the purified materials and reports a 75% yield. The research advisor and this student have already published 3 papers based on his previous results. Who is potentially affected by this student's behavior? What are your options for possible actions? (Coppola, pp. 1506–1511)

It is important to understand that the educative development of ethical reasoning skills neither represents nor advocates a prescribed moral position, and does not commit a student in advance to dogmatic solutions to all moral problems. Ethics, or ethical reasoning, is the process by which the most defensible resolution to a moral dilemma is sought.

Brian P. Coppola


Buono, Gérard (2001). "On the Beneficial Effect of ortho-Methoxy Groups in the Asymmetric Ring Opening of meso Epoxides with Silicon Tetrachloride Catalyzed by Chiralortho-Methoxyphenyldiazaphosphonamide Lewis Bases." Angewandte Chemie, International Edition in English. 40:4536.

Buono, Gérard; Brunel, J. M.; Legrand, O.; et al. (2000). "On the Beneficial Effect of ortho-Methoxy Groups in the Asymmetric Ring Opening of meso Epoxides with Silicon Tetrachloride Catalyzed by Chiralortho-Methoxyphenyldiazaphosphonamide Lewis Bases." Angewandte Chemie, International Edition in English. 39:2554.

Coppola, Brian P. (2000). "Targeting Entry Points for Ethics in Chemistry Teaching and Learning." Journal of Chemical Education 77:1506–1511.

Sieber, J. E. (1992). Planning Ethically Responsible Research: A Guide for Students and Internal Review Boards, Vol. 31. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society (1991). Honor in Science. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources. Office of Research Integrity (September 24, 2000). Analysis of Institutional Policies for Responding to Allegations of Scientific Misconduct. Final Report. Columbia, MD: Office of Research Integrity. Also available from .

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