Some comments on ethical issues about research

written for graduate students in the sciences,
and specifically for graduate students with whom Bruce Railsback works.

        One of the requirements of most graduate students in the sciences is that they produce a piece of original research.   In this role, you join the scientific community in the effort to generate a better scientific understanding of the world.  You join a long line of scientists - Aristotle, Bacon, Cuvier, Hooke, Lechatelier, Hutton, Lyell, Darwin, McClintock, to name a few - in reporting data and observations.  In doing so, you take on several responsibities.  This document attempts to point out a few of them.
        This document points out the systematic reasons why some behaviors are unacceptable (e.g. double submission of a manuscript wastes the time of editors and reviewers).  You should also be aware that being caught in the behaviors marked with an asterisk can bring severe penalties that include loss of academic degrees, being barred from publication in journals, letters of reprimand to department heads, deans, and evaluatory committees, and loss of employment.
        Much of this may seem self-evident to you. If so, please do not be insulted at being asked to read it. Problems in the past suggest that at least some scientists fail to appreciate some of the issues raised below.

* You must never fabricate or falsify data.  Science moves forward with new data as it attempts to find truth.  Fabricating data (making up data that never were generated) and falsifying data (changing or deleting data already generated) instead sends science, and the scientific community, toward untruths.  Fabrication and falsification are the greatest possible betrayal of science, in that all science assumes that the data presented in papers are correct.  We appreciate that interpretations can be wrong, and that is why we insist on a separation of data ("Results") in papers from the interpretation ("Discussion") of those data.
        The point made above cannot be emphasized too much.  There are few if any behaviors in which you could engage that would upset me as much as if I learned that you had fabricated or falsified data in your research.

* You must never plagiarize data or interpretations.  Scientists are rewarded for new data and interpretations with academic degrees, job offers, promotions, and increases in salary.  Presenting the data or interpretations of others without crediting them, and thereby gaining for yourself the rewards earned by others, is theft, and it eliminates the motivation of working scientists to generate new data and interpretations.

* You must maintain a documentary record of your research.  Dated documentary records - lab notebooks, field notebooks, labeled samples, instrument printouts, tables of data, etc. - accomplish two things.  First, they document that you actually did the research that you claim to have done, and thus they protect you from charges of fabrication or falsification. Secondly, they provide a record of your work for your own good.  Messy science - unlabeled samples, unrecorded results - leads to bad science when you say "I'm pretty sure this is the sample from . . ." before you analyze it or say "I'm pretty sure that the value I got for this measurement two days (or weeks, or years) ago was . . .".  Messy science leads to fabrication and falsification, regardless of whether there was intent or perhaps even awareness.  No research means anything without a full record of that research made at the time of that research.
        From a legal standpoint, one should also note that lab and field notebooks can be subject to subpoena in legal proceedings. Almost any scientific research could conceivably be drawn into to such proceedings, which might concern a corporate lawsuit over environmental or technical problems, an inquiry into use of grant funds, or an investigation of field or lab safety practices.

* You are obligated to gain the approval of all co-authors before submitting a manuscript.   The presence of any person's name as an author implies that that person assents to the validity of the data and the soundness of the interpretation.  Putting their name as an author without their approval is no less problematic than claiming that they assent to legal testimony.

* You cannot submit a manuscript for publication to two or more journals or other outlets at the same time.  Journal editors and reviwers put an enormous amount of time processing submitted manuscripts.  Multiple submission betrays their trust that they are doing all this work for a reason.  Withdrawal of a manuscript from one journal if accepted at another would be exactly that betrayal. In addition, see the next item.

* You cannot submit for publication to a journal or other outlet a manuscript previously published elsewhere.  Journal space is a precious resource, and journals must commonly reject good science for lack of page space.  Re-publication consumes that page space and thus betrays the scientific mission to disseminate as much new data as possible. Re-publication is also likely to involve violation of copyright, in that it involves publication of text or figures to which the first journal already holds the copyright. Most journals will therefore require a signed statement concerning the originality of the work submitted.

You are obligated to take seriously the comments and suggestions of reviewers of your research.  Reviewers do hard work to read and evaluate manuscripts and to write constructive reviews.  Resubmission without revision to accomodate reviewers' comments, even if only by clarifying text that a reviewer misunderstood, betrays the scientific community's assumption that we are all working together to produce better knowledge.

* You cannot incorporate in your research data or ideas that you read in proposals or manuscripts that you are asked to review.  You are given unpublished results in proposals and manuscripts as a matter of trust in which the scientific community must engage for peer review to happen.  Using those data or ideas is theft, just as much as is plagiarism from a published document.

You are obligated to review manuscripts and proposals in a constructive way.  Reviews that block publication without justification or funding, or that insult the author or proposer, diminish the credibility of the peer-review process and diminish your own credibility as well.


You also consult a list of "Science Ethics Resources on the Net" .
and the Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science .
Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, has a good booklet called "Honor in Science" available for US$3.00 from their publications department.


e-mail to Bruce Railsback (
Railsback's main web page
UGA Geology Department web page




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