Skip to main content
Log in

Truth and trustworthiness in research

  • Published:
Science and Engineering Ethics Aims and scope Submit manuscript


We have recently reached a watershed in the research community’s consideration of the ethics of research. The way is now open for a more nuanced discussion than the one of the last decade in which attention to legal and quasi-legal procedures for handling misconduct dominated. The new discussion of ethical issues focused on trustworthiness takes us beyond consideration of conduct that is straightforwardly permitted, forbidden or required, to consideration of criteria for responsible behavior.

This paper develops an overview of the subject of trustworthiness among researchers. It illustrates and discusses various types of betrayal and defections in research conduct, and locates these in relation to many of the situations discussed elsewhere in this issue.

Beginning with the breaches of trust that constitute major wrongdoing in research (“research misconduct”), I argue that these are more often examples of negligence or recklessness than they are of “fraud.” Acts of negligence and recklessness figure not only in misconduct, narrowly defined, but in many lesser betrayals and defections that undermine trust. The presence or absence of an intentional deception is not a reliable indicator of the seriousness of some moral lapse. Such a lapse, where it does occur, may be simply a particularly poor response to perennially difficult research responsibility. Finally, I consider trust and trustworthiness among collaborating researchers and a range of intentional and unintentional behaviors that influence the character of these trust relationships. The supervisor-supervisee relationship is of particular significance because it is both a difficult area of responsibility for the supervisor and because this relationship is formative for a new researcher’s subsequent expectations and behavior.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (1995)On Being a Scientist, second edition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, preface (unnumbered page).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Alberts, Bruce and Shine, Kenneth (1994) “Scientists and the Integrity of Research.”Science 266 (December 9) 1660. Emphasis added.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Alberts, Bruce and Shine, Kenneth.op. cit.(, 1661.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kiang, N (1995) How Are Scientific Corrections Made?Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 347–356.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Guertin, R (1995) Commentary on: “How Are Scientific Corrections Made?” (by N. Kiang),Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 357–359.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Office of the Inspector General, National Science Foundation. (1992)Semiannual Report to the Congress. Number 7: April 1, 1992–September 30, 1992, 22.

  7. HHS Commission on Research Integrity, (1995) “Professional Misconduct Involving Research,”Professional Ethics Report, vol. VIII, no. 3, (Summer ’95).

  8. Addelson, Kathryn (1994)Moral Passages. Routledge, New York: 13–18.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Williams, Bernard (1988) “Formal Structures and Social Reality.” In: Gambetta D, ed.Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, Basil Blackwell, Oxford: 3–13.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Edsall, J T (1995) On the Hazards of Whistleblowers and on Some Problems of Young Biomedical Scientists in our Time.Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 329–340.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Bird S J & Housman D E (1995) Trust and the Collection, Selection, Analysis and Interpretation of Data: A Scientist’s View.Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 371–382.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Rennie D (1989) How much fraud? Let’s do an experimental audit.The AAAS Observer, 6 Jan 1989: 4.

    Google Scholar 

  13. National Academy of Sciences Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research (1992)Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Volume I. National Academy Press, Washington, DC: 25.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Cohen, Jon (1994) “U.S.-French Patent Dispute Heads for a Showdown.”Science 265 (July 1, 1994) 23–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Office of the Inspector General, National Science Foundation (1993)Semiannual Report to the Congress Number 9, April 1, 1993–September 30, 1993, 37.

  16. Rose, M & Fischer, K (1995) Policies and Perspectives on Authorship.Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 361–370.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Racker, Efraim (1989) A View of Misconduct in Science.Nature 339 (May 1989) 91–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Shore, E G (1995) Effectiveness of Research Guidelines in Prevention of Scientific Misconduct.Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 383–387.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Roberts, Leslie (1991) Misconduct: Caltech’s Trial by Fire.Science 252 (September 20 1991): 1344–47.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Holton, Gerald (1978) “Subelectrons, presuppositions, and the Millikan-Ehrenhaft dispute,” inHistorical Studies in the Physical Sciences 11: 166–224, reprinted in the collection of Holton’s essays (1978)Scientific Imagination. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 25–83.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Holton, Gerald (1994) “On Doing One’s Damnedest: the Evolution of Trust in Scientific Findings.” ch. 7 in Holton’sEinstein, History, and Other Passions. American Institute of Physics, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Holton (1994)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Holton (1978) 63 quoted from Robert A. Millikan, “On The Elementary Electrical Charge and the Avogadro Constant,”Physical Review 2 (1913), 109–143.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Holton, Gerald; personal communication February, 1995.

  25. Jackson C. I. (1992)Honor in Science, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, Research Triangle Park, NC, USA.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Baier, Annette (1986) “Trust and Antitrust.”Ethics 96: 232–260. Reprinted inMoral Prejudices. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 95–129.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Committee on Academic Responsibility Appointed by the President and Provost of MIT (1992)Fostering Academic Integrity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  28. Macrina, Francis L. (1995)Dynamic Issues in Scientific Integrity: Collaborative Research, a report from the American Academy of Microbiology. American Academy of Microbiology, Washington, D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Korenman, Stanley G. and Shipp, Allan C. with Association of American Medical Colleges ad hoc Committee on Misconduct and Conflict of Interest, (AAMC) (1994)Teaching the Responsible Conduct of Research through a Case Study Approach. Association of American Medical Colleges, New York.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Whitbeck, C (1994) letter to the editor on Overlapping Dissertation Topics,Science 263 (Aug. 19, 1994) 1020.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (1995)op. cit.,14.

  32. Fischbach, R L & Gilbert D. C. (1995) The Ombudsman for Research Practice: A Proposal for a New Position and an Invitation to Comment.Science and Engineering Ethics 1: 389–402.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Whitbeck.

Additional information

I review the history of the research community’s discussion of research ethics in the editorial for this issue ofScience and Engineering Ethics 1: 322–328.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Whitbeck, C. Truth and trustworthiness in research. Sci Eng Ethics 1, 403–416 (1995).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: