New York Medical College

Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences

Advisory Board on Ethics & Professional Standards

 

Rationale

Integrity is essential to the scientific enterprise; the issue is trust. Scientific progress would be impossible if the reported contributions of individual scientists could not be trusted as honest accounts of the research that was actually conducted. Public support for science, including financial support, also requires the public’s trust. The ORI (Office of Research Integrity) is not only mandated to monitor research conduct related to federally funded research but to provide guidelines for professional standards of conduct and practices.

As an institution whose mission, in part, is to “educate scientists … (and) conduct research,” 1 New York Medical College has an obligation to foster scientific integrity in its researchers and to instill a sense of scientific integrity in its students who will become practitioners of science. Graduate educational institutions probably have little capacity to instill integrity per se in its students. This is a character trait that is usually formed long before a student enters the university. What graduate schools can do, however, is to help its students learn the principles of ethical behavior and the accepted standards of professional conduct. They can also help their students develop strategies and techniques for moral reasoning with particular regard to their field of study. This knowledge and these skills will allow the students to analyze particular situations in which they may find themselves in order to determine what ought or ought not to be done from an ethical standpoint.

Although most observers agree that scientific fraud, in its most egregious sense, is relatively rare, several noteworthy scandals have come to light in recent years. In a recent study, a large group of biomedical scientists were asked to complete an anonymous survey regarding their own behavior during the previous ten years 2. Only about 0.3% of this pool (which included more than 3,000 respondents) admitted to the egregious offense of falsifying or “cooking” research data. But nearly one third of the respondents admitted engaging during the study period in one or another of ten specific behaviors that were identified by focus groups and research compliance officers as serious, sanctionable ethical lapses. Thus, unethical behavior appears to be a rather common occurrence.

Preliminary studies indicate that students entering graduate school in the biomedical sciences have a relatively poor knowledge of the principles and practices related to the responsible conduct of research. For example, a group of 30 students who enrolled in the Graduate School this past fall took a voluntary multiple-choice test of their knowledge of basic research ethics principles and practices. The average score on this 30-question test was 43%. Ph.D. students did no better than Master’s students. While their ignorance may be easily forgiven, since they are students after all, this observation suggests that knowledge of what is acceptable behavior is neither mere “common sense” nor something readily or universally learned from an undergraduate education.

While few, if any, faculty would disagree about the importance of instilling ethical behavior and professional standards in our students, most might argue that we are already doing a good job in that regard. There are two difficulties with this position. First, recent objective data does not support this assumption. Research on awareness of the principles of the responsible conduct of research (RCR), as developed by the ORI, indicates that recent Ph.D.s and post-docs who have not been exposed to formal programs in RCR are no more aware of the acceptable norms of conduct than students just entering graduate school 3. Second, the perceptions of faculty and students differ on how openly and comprehensively these issues are addressed in graduate programs. In general, faculty feel they are addressed more comprehensively than do students 4. As an educational goal, therefore, this area needs to have clear educational objectives and measurable outcomes.

Over the past 12 years, many of the most complicated and troublesome problems that have been brought to the attention of the graduate school dean by students or postdoctoral fellows have involved a significant ethical question. This is not to imply that there is widespread unethical behavior here, or that faculty-student relations are, in general, destructive and pathological. Neither appears to be the case. Rather, this admittedly anecdotal experience makes it clear that there is widespread uncertainty about what constitutes ethical or unethical behavior in many aspects of the normal day-to-day activities within our research and educational enterprises. Broader knowledge about professional standards and ethical norms would allow faculty and students to resolve or even avoid misunderstandings and conflict in many such situations.

New York Medical College enjoys a rich diversity of national and cultural origins among our faculty and student body, which introduces an additional consideration. The issue is not that any one culture is more or less ethical than another, but that different cultures may have different norms and customs in important ethical areas. For example, the scientific communities of different countries and different disciplines may have differing norms about what constitutes plagiarism or about the order in which authors are listed in reports on collaborative research projects. Rules and laws regarding intellectual property rights may vary from one country to another. Rules and standards for recording and storing data may vary from country-to-country, institution-to-institution, and even from lab-to-lab. Thus, we have the added task of addressing the question of what sets of standards and rules apply here.

It is also important to remember the presence of postdoctoral research fellows within our research community. In fact, fellows outnumber Ph.D. students by a factor of about 3-to-2. Many, perhaps most, of these fellows received their undergraduate and graduate training outside the United States. It is likely that few, if any, of these fellows have had any formal instruction in the principles of the responsible conduct of research. Moreover, these fellows are at an even more critical and, in some ways, more vulnerable stage of their career development. For post-docs, ethical issues such as who “owns” research data, who should receive credit for the research work done, and what data, resources and techniques may be carried forward to the fellow’s next position assume even greater significance than they do for students. Since postdoctoral fellows are, like students, trainees, our responsibility with regard to fostering scientific integrity extends to this group as well. Engaging them in this process, however, is more problematic because of the very decentralized oversight of fellows that exists at this institution.

Educational principles

Our overarching goal is to produce graduates who are prepared to meet the high professional and ethical standards expected by their profession and are also able to pass these standards on to their students and protégés. To this end, we require a comprehensive and coherent program of instruction and professional development in the responsible conduct of research and general professional standards of behavior.

Such a program should include centralized and formal components that expose students to the relevant ethical principles, methods of moral reasoning, professional standards and codes of conduct, and institutional rules, regulations and policies. We have already established a required course in RCR for all new doctoral students. One can regard this formal component as providing the students with a base of knowledge and reasoning skill. Departmental faculty can then build upon this base in their departmental activities, such as seminars and journal clubs, and individual faculty can further build upon it in the context of their laboratory interactions and mentor-mentee relationships with individual students and fellows. It is possible to accomplish this in ways that are coherent, interesting and effective.

Since the message we wish to convey is that ethical research and professional standards of conduct are the expected norm for each member of the profession, it is important that regular faculty be directly involved in providing this instruction. It would be possible to “hire” a professional ethicist to teach an entire course or run an intensive workshop that “covers” the relevant content, but this would imply that the graduate faculty themselves find this overall topic either irrelevant to them or too complex 5. Therefore, we need to develop a cadre of faculty who are comfortable enough with these ethical principles and techniques of moral reasoning to provide the “formal” instructional components. But we also need to imbue the entire academic community with a sense of the importance of these issues and sufficient familiarity with them that they are able to foster the professional development of their students in the more decentralized and informal settings alluded to above.

Despite the significant growth in the number of research scientists educated over the past half century, and despite the many changes in how graduate programs are structured, the “training” of new scientists remains based on a master-apprentice model. Over the past twenty years or so, the term “mentor” has replaced “master” or “advisor” in common parlance to denote the role played by the senior scientists who guides the research project of his or her student or post-doctoral fellow. In truth, however, mentoring includes a broader set of influences and responsibilities than simple research skills training. Moreover, an individual trainee may have more than one mentor over the course of his or her career trajectory, or even at any given time in that career. Yet mentoring, like parenting, is rarely taught. Its great importance in the education and training of new scientists, however, requires that we, as a graduate school, provide some support to the process and to the partners in that process, both mentors and “mentees.”

Since the Graduate School’s goals in this area are so comprehensive and far reaching, its efforts would greatly benefit from collegial input from the faculty and other experts with regard to the priorities that should be addressed, preferred methods of instruction and engagement, the efficacy of various program components, and outreach strategies.

Purpose and mission

A panel of faculty and other individuals shall be created and known as the Advisory Board on Ethics and Professional Standards.

Its purpose shall be to advise the Dean of the Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences (GSBMS) and the Graduate Faculty Council regarding the development of professional standards of behavior in graduate students within the GSBMS and post-doctoral research fellows within the College. The areas within the purview of the Advisory Board shall include the following:

  • responsible conduct of research training program
  • mentoring of students and fellows
  • other aspects of the professional development of scientists

Within each of these areas, the Advisory Board shall assess need and evaluate the effectiveness of program components. It shall suggest modifications or innovations in program components as appropriate and it shall suggest strategies for involving members of the research community in the program.

Membership and operational guidelines

The Dean of the GSBMS shall appoint the membership of the Advisory Board for indefinite terms. The Board shall include at least three members of the Graduate Faculty, one graduate student and one post-doctoral fellow. The Board may include additional members of the faculty or administration in order to provide a breadth of expertise with the various objectives and constituencies of the ethics and professional standards program. Members shall continue to serve on the Board at the pleasure of the Dean. A member may resign from the Board at any time.

The Advisory Board shall meet at least twice yearly or more often as is appropriate to address issues under consideration. Written minutes shall be kept of the Advisory Board’s specific recommendations. The Dean or an appointed representative of the Advisory Board shall make periodic reports of its deliberations and recommendations to the Graduate Faculty Council.


1 NYMC Mission Statement, which can be found at http://www.nymc.edu/

2 Martinson BC, MS Anderson, R de Vries.  Scientists behaving badly.  Nature 435: 737-8, 2005.

3 E. Heitman, personal communication.

4 Based on preliminary results of a Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) RCR task force survey, 2005.

5 Use of such outside expertise for selected topics or special lectures, however, is appropriate and desirable.