Skip to main content
Log in

Ethical Ambiguity in Science

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

Abstract

Drawing on 171 in-depth interviews with physicists at universities in the United States and the UK, this study examines the narratives of 48 physicists to explain the concept of ethical ambiguity: the border where legitimate and illegitimate conduct is blurred. Researchers generally assume that scientists agree on what constitutes both egregious and more routine forms of misconduct in science. The results of this study show that scientists perceive many scenarios as ethically gray, rather than black and white. Three orientations to ethical ambiguity are considered—altruism, inconsequential outcomes, and preserving the status quo—that allow possibly questionable behavior to persist unchallenged. Each discursive strategy is rationalized as promoting the collective interest of science rather than addressing what is ethically correct or incorrect. The results of this study suggest that ethics training in science should focus not only on fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism and more routine forms of misconduct, but also on strategies for resolving ethically ambiguous scenarios where appropriate action may not be clear.

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

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

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

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. We thank a reviewer for calling our attention to this literature. Our intention here is to highlight the relevance of these frameworks to the conceptualization of ethical ambiguity. The present study should in no way be understood as a test of these theories.

  2. In a supplemental analysis we conducted for a cross-national survey unrelated to the present study, we were able to compare the NRC and WOS rankings of physics departments and found that the systems similarly classified the elite universities as among the top 25. Whereas the NRC analyzed 161 universities and the five non-elites in our sample fell among the 50 lowest ranked departments (or bottom 31 %), in the WoS analysis the five non-elites in our sample fell among the bottom 50 %. However, the result of our triangulation process in which in-country experts classified the physics departments as elite or non-elite resulted in a perfect consistency with how we ranked each department for the present study.

  3. In 14 of the 15 departments in the UK sample, there was no ambiguity in the classification of departments as elite or non-elite. In the one case that was unclear, WoS ranked the department high as a result of publication productivity, there was disagreement among experts regarding the elite or non-elite status of the university, and the 2008 RAE ranked the department relatively low. In light of these latter two factors, and because the department in question had many faculty but WoS does not account for department size, we classified the department as non-elite.

  4. UK41, February 25, 2014.

  5. UK53, March 6, 2014.

  6. US34, May 2, 2013.

  7. US29, April 30, 2013.

  8. US10, March 26, 2013.

  9. US34, May 2, 2013.

  10. US63, August 5, 2013.

  11. US90, December 13, 2013.

  12. UK66, April 22, 2014.

  13. UK40, February 25, 2014.

  14. US61, July 24, 2013.

  15. US01, March 21, 2013.

  16. UK73, May 1, 2014.

  17. UK73, May 1, 2014.

  18. US28, April 29, 2013.

  19. US63, August 5, 2013.

  20. US65, August 5, 2013.

  21. US89, December 13, 2013.

  22. UK16, September 30, 2013.

References

  • Alberts, B., Cicerone, R., Fienberg, S., Kamb, A., McNutt, M., Nerem, R., & Schekman, R. (2015). Self-correction in science at work. Science, 348(6242), 1420–1422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, M., Shaw, M., Steneck, N., Konkle, E., & Kamata, T. (2013). Research integrity and misconduct in the academic profession. In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  • Basset, R. (2009). MIT Trained Swadeshis: MIT and Indian Nationalism, 1880–1947. Osiris, 24, 212–230.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bouville, M. (2008). On using ethical theories to teach engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14, 111–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cadge, W., Ecklund, E., & Short, N. (2009). Constructions of religion and spirituality in the daily boundary work of pediatric physicians. Social Problems, 56, 702–721.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chen, J. (2015). Virtue and the scientist: Using virtue ethics to examine science’s ethical and moral challenges. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21, 75–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chubin, D. E. (1985). Research malpractice. BioScience, 35, 80–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J. (2005). A word from the president: “Research integrity is job one.” AAMC reporter September. http://www.aamc.org/newsroom/reporter/sept05/word.htm

  • Cooney, M. (2009). Is killing wrong?: A study in pure sociology. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • De Vries, R., Anderson, M. S., & Martinson, B. C. (2006). Normal misbehavior: Scientists talk about the ethics of research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(1), 43–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review of Sociology, 23, 263–287.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Durkheim, E. (1982) [1895]. The rules of the sociological method. New York: Free Press.

  • Ecklund, E. (2010). Science vs. religion: What scientists really think. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Fanelli, D. (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PloS One, 4(5), e5738.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Geuna, A., & Martin, B. (2003). University research evaluation and funding: An international comparison. Minerva, 41, 277–304.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gordin, M. (2009). Points critical: Russia, Ireland, and science at the boundary. Osiris, 24, 99–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Han, H. (2015). Virtue ethics, positive psychology, and a new model of science and engineering ethics education. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21, 441–460.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hermanowicz, J. (2009). Lives in science. How institutions affect academic careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hobson-West, P. (2012). Ethical boundary-work in the animal research laboratory. Sociology, 46(4), 649–663.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kovac, J. (2004). The ethical chemist: Professionalism and ethics in science. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, M., & Molnár, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 21, 167–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Long, J.S., & Fox, M.F. (1995). Scientific careers: Universalism and particularism. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 45–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Martinson, B. C., Anderson, M. S., Crain, A. L., & De Vries, R. (2006). Scientists' perceptions of organizational justice and self-reported misbehaviors. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 1(1), 51–66.

  • Miller, D., Eagly, A., & Linn, M. (2014). Women’s representation in science predicts national gender-science stereotypes: Evidence from 66 nations. Journal of Educational Psychology. doi:10.1037/edu0000005.

    Google Scholar 

  • Normile, D., Vogel, G., & Holden, C. (2005). Cloning researcher says work is flawed but claims results stand. Science, 310, 1886–1887.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nyberg, D. (2008). The morality of everyday activities: Not the right, but the good thing to do. Journal of Business Ethics, 81, 587–598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ostriker, J. P., Kuh, C. V., & Voytuk, J. A. (2010). A data-based assessment of research-doctorate programs in the United States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Owen-Smith, J., Riccaboni, M., Pammolli, F., & Powell, W. W. (2002). A comparison of US and European university-industry relations in the life sciences. Management Science, 48(1), 24–43.

  • Rebera, A., & Rafalowski, C. (2014). On the spot ethical decision-making in CBRN response. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20, 735–752.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schmidt, J. (2014). Changing the paradigm for engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20, 985–1010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schulz, W. G. (2008). A massive case of fraud. Chemical and Engineering News, 86(7), 37–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Scneider, Leonid. (2015). Too much to be nothing? Laborjournal, 3, 14–19.

    Google Scholar 

  • Service, R. F. (2003). More of Bell Labs physicist’s papers retracted. Science, 299(5603), 31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wainwright, S. P., Williams, C., Michael, M., Farsides, B., & Cribb, A. (2006). Ethical boundary-work in the embryonic stem cell laboratory. Sociology of Health and Illness, 28(6), 732–748.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zuckerman, H. (1988) The sociology of science. In N. Smelser (Ed.) Handbook of sociology (pp. 511–574). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Download references

Acknowledgments

The data for this analysis come from the ethics among physicists in Cross-National Perspective Study, funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant #1237737), Elaine Howard Ecklund PI, Kirstin R.W. Matthews and Steven Lewis, Co-PIs.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David R. Johnson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Johnson, D.R., Ecklund, E.H. Ethical Ambiguity in Science. Sci Eng Ethics 22, 989–1005 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-015-9682-9

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-015-9682-9

Keywords

Navigation