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Ethical Ambiguity in Science

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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.

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  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.


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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.

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Correspondence to David R. Johnson.

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Johnson, D.R., Ecklund, E.H. Ethical Ambiguity in Science. Sci Eng Ethics 22, 989–1005 (2016).

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