S&T Ethics 4

Intermission story: Philosophy

A young student visits an old and renown Philosophy scholar in his office. He wants to study Philosophy under his guidance and asked for support. The old Professor says: “You are not ready to understand the depth of Philosophy.”. The youngster inquires that he has a degree from Harvard University and believes his intellectual and logic skills to be high enough to study Philosophy. The Professor decides to give it a chance and offers to test the young man. He tells him this question:

“Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student replies: “The one with the dirty face, of course!”

The Professor: “No, wrong! Apply your logic! The one with dirty face sees his companion with a clean face, so why would he know he should wash his face? The one with the clean face will wash his face. He can see his companion with a dirty face, so he thinks his face is dirty, too. So he will go and wash it.”

He goes on: “I will give you another chance! Here is the question: Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The confused student says: “Didn’t we just have that? I got it! The one with a clean face will go and wash it!”

Professor: “No, wrong again! First the one with a clean face will go and wash it because he sees the companion with the dirty face. Then the other one must think that he should wash his face, too! So they both go and wash their faces!”

The student agrees but starts feeling miserable about his failure. He humbly asks for another test. The Professor agrees and asks him the same question again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, now even more puzzled, explains: “As you just said: They both go and wash their faces!”

Professor: “No, wrong! Neither of them washes the face! The one with the dirty face, seeing the partner with a clean face, feels no urge to wash his face. Therefore, the one with the clean face, even though he believes his face is dirty, too, also doesn’t go to wash his face, because why bother when the partner also doesn’t bother?!”

The student, now almost desperate, asks for one last chance. He is sure, he got it now. The Professor gives him that last chance and asks, again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, almost crying, says: “You just said ‘Neither’!”

Professor: “Sorry, wrong again! You see, all your logic doesn’t help! Don’t you think that situation is very unlikely to happen? Two burglars coming in through the same chimney and one having a clean face, the other a dirty face? That is impossible! I told you, you are not ready to understand Philosophy!”

The student replies: “But that is unfair! What can I do when you ask the same question four times and every time the answer is different and even contradictory to the former one?”

Professor: “But THIS IS Philosophy!”


What do we learn from this story? There is almost never only one “right” answer in philosophic inquiry in general and ethical discourse in particular. Cases that can be solved clearly (with one answer) are most likely not an issue on the discourse agenda. Conflicts that arise can be viewed from different standpoints and more than one reasoning strategy is “correct” in the sense that it is consistent, based on acceptable premises and following formal logic without errors. Many of the cases and examples we discuss in this course – at least in the light in that I present them – sound “simple” or approachable from one particular perspective. We must keep in mind, however, that the reality of ethical discourse is not that easy.

3.4 Publishing

Ethical issues in the field of publishing arise in terms of authorship, citation, peer reviewing, impact factors, duplicative publication, multiple submissions of one essay to different publishers, publishing of controversial research and in public communication of science through the mass media. We will see how the virtues we compiled (see 3.1) relate to forms of misbehaviour that can occur in this part of science conduct.

3.4.1 Authorship

The first question we can ask is: What qualifies for authorship? That means, who should be legitimately listed as an author on the publication? Some say it is a matter of work load: Those who do significant work for the study or project that is described in the text should be listed as an author. However, a lot of work is done by technicians and non-academic staff. These workers usually don’t appear as authors, with the argument that only “intellectual contributions” count in. Sometimes, significant parts of the study (experimental work or literature research) are carried out by students (bachelor, master, PhD). Some senior researchers and PIs might exploit their work without giving credit to them. Departments and faculties may give themselves binding guidelines on how to handle these problems (for example: bachelor (undergraduate) students’ theses (which are mostly literature research) may be used by a Professor without crediting the student with authorship, but Master students and PhD have a right to appear as author as soon as they produce data or contribute otherwise to the publication, even when it is not particularly part of their thesis work). Proofreading and commenting text doesn’t qualify for authorship, but it may be credited in the “Acknowledgement”, a section in the article usually accepted by the publisher. It is also important to note that all authors have to be able to explain and defend the whole work, even when they wrote only parts of it. All authors are held accountable for what is published under their name.

“Intellectual contribution” is often equivalent with “producing new knowledge”. A form of knowledge that is clearly distinguished from that is so called “Driver’s knowledge” (see, for example, the insightful book “The Art of Thinking Clearly – Better thinking, better decision” by Rolf Dobelli, Chapter 16). The term originates from a true story:

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. He was provided a Chauffeur (driver) who drove him around the country. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur who always listened to it grew to know it by heart: “It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That would give us both a bit of variety!” Planck liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Since there was no internet at that time, people could not know what Max Planck looked like, so they couldn’t identify the prank. Later, a physics professor stood up with a complex and smart question. The driver – no idea of science at all – recoiled: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced University as Munich would ask such a simple question!”, and pointing at Max Planck with the chauffeur cap: “Even my driver can answer it! I’ll pass the question to him!”

The difference between the driver and Max Planck is that the former just articulates knowledge without having elaborated the insights. A similar example is the News reader (on TV or the radio) who can do his job without being expert on world politics. Scientific essays and research articles usually require (as demanded by the publisher) originality, that means they have to present new knowledge. Driver’s knowledge does not qualify for publication (one exception: review articles) or for authorship (for example, someone who performed a literature research to substantiate the introduction of a research paper).

When the authors of a paper are determined, the next question that can cause trouble is that of the order of authors. Believe it or not, but it can cause massive dispute among co-authors! Usually, the first author in the list is the one with the most significant contribution, often also the “corresponding author”, the one that should be contacted in any case of inquiry. The first position is important because in citation practice, it is common style to abbreviate a paper as “[Author 1] et al. [Year]”, so that the first author is usually the most credited one. For PhD students it is often important to be first author of their paper because Professors or departments have rules concerning the preconditions for finishing a thesis, for example “The candidate needs to have at least 3 published works as first author.” The last author is often a senior researcher or principle investigator (PI). Since most fellow scientists will usually notice the first and last author of a paper upon scanning the literature, this position is almost as popular as the first. In many cases, collaborators agree upon authorship and authors’ order before they start a project in order to avoid conflict.

There are two forms of authorship that are regarded as highly unethical because they violate the virtues of fairness and communalism: honorary authorships and ghost authorship.

  • Honorary authorship: A person is listed as an author on a paper even though he or she has not made a significant contribution to the research. There are several reasons why people may be authors in name only. Sometimes a person is listed as an author as a sign of respect or gratitude. Some laboratory directors have insisted that they be listed as an author on every publication that their lab produces. Sometimes individuals are named as authors as a personal or professional favor. Some researchers have even developed reciprocal arrangements for listing each other as coauthors. Finally, a person with a high degree of prestige or notoriety may be listed as an author in order to give the publication more visibility or impact.
  • Ghost authorship: A person is not listed as an author, even though he or she has made a significant contribution, in order to hide the paper’s financial connections. Some pharmaceutical companies use ghostwriters to write a manuscript, who may not be involved in planning or conducting the research. In extreme cases, even the researchers are ghosts. Ghost authorship is common in industry-sponsored clinical trials. One study found that 75% of industry-initiated clinical trials had ghost authors.

3.4.2 Citation practice

A reference for this section is: Hoffmann R, Kabanov AA, Golov AA, Proserpio DM, “Homo Citans and Carbon Allotropes: For an Ethics of Citation“, Angew. Chemie Int. Ed. 2016, 55(37), pp.10962.

Why do we cite other works or quote other scientists? Here is an incomplete list of the most important reasons:

  • Tradition of scholarship – All academic work is based on a rich tradition of practices and achievements that constitutes the roots of current and new progress. Referring to those roots has ever since been part of written elaborations. In other words: “We have always done it like that!”
  • History – Despite the newness of certain insights and knowledge, everything (!) has antecedents, everything has a history. Reference to that history is due!
  • Utility – Instead of describing established procedures (e.g. experimental protocols) or complex interrelations over and over again (by that, inflating papers to improper length), it is much easier and convenient to refer to other works that the interested reader may turn to in case he or she needs or wants further input.
  • Avoidance of duplication – In order to illustrate the originality and newness of a contribution, it should be compared to existing work so that the differences become clear. Citing others shows in which way the own work is not simply a duplication of their work.
  • Establishing credentials – Citing proves good knowledge of one’s academic field and solid background knowledge. Here, it is possible to cite too little (not enough background knowledge), too much (most likely just copying citations from other sources without critical reflection), mostly one’s own work (proving narrow-mindedness), or just enough.
  • Priority – Our selection of works that are worth citing constitutes an additional way of quality assurance and peer review. Academics tend to cite works of good quality and avoid mentioning poor quality publications in order to give them a lower visibility. It is tempting, of course, to cite the not-so-good papers to make the own paper appear in better light. Here, the virtues of fairness, objectivity and truthfulness apply!

A crucial point in citation is the completeness of references. Many scientists perform very selective literature searches, ignoring important work unconsciously or even consciously. Nowadays, there is no excuse for that since the technical facilities (internet) enable a quick and easy gain of overview, for example through the “web of science” search engine or institute-specific (online) library tools. Scientists have the obligation to perform a background knowledge check and to know their academic field well. Whether there is also the obligation to actually read every cited item is a different question. It is downright impossible to read every article and book completely and thoroughly. However, it is recommended to read at least the abstract and the conclusion. Citing works without having a clue what’s written in it, for example by trusting the significance of the title or copying it from other sources that cite this work, can be dangerous when it turns out that either it doesn’t have any connection to the statement that it is associated with, or it even states the opposite.

Most publishers have clear rules for the layout of references, that means the way the authors’ names, article title, publisher, place and year of publication, etc., is presented. The same is for quotations (presenting entire statements from other sources than oneself). Quotations are a more sensitive topic since improper labelling and clear mark-up as a quotation may lead to an accusation of plagiarism. Every written word that represents an idea, thought and claim that is not one’s own must be marked as a quotation. In case of images, giving a reference to the original source is not sufficient since published images fall under copyright law. Before publishing someone else’s image (including figures, sketches, photographs, diagrams, etc.), the permission has to be obtained from the copyright holder (often the publisher, not the author).

3.4.3 Peer review

After submitting a research article, book draft, grant proposal or the application for tenure or other academic positions, it is reviewed and evaluated by “peers”, fellow scientists who – ideally – are also expert in the field of the submitter/applicant. In case of publications, these reviewers are chosen by the publisher (who is, understandably, most likely not an expert of every contributor’s research field) and asked to express their professional opinion on a piece of work. Most publishers explicitly ask them not to make a recommendation on “publish” or “not publish”, but rather make detailed remarks on the originality and quality of the presented work, point out flaws and insufficiencies, ask for more detailed input for particular parts of the paper. Based on these comments, the publisher may decide to reject the paper or accept it just as it is, but in the majority of cases the draft with the comments is returned to the submitter for him to revise the draft and re-submit an improved version. In the past, most review procedures were “single-blind” reviews in which the reviewers know the name of the author(s) while they themselves remain anonymous. Today, most publishers switched to a “double-blind” review, in which also the author(s) remain(s) anonymous.

There is a good argument for this practice: it is the most effective internal control system of science. Who else could evaluate the quality of research than fellow researchers? However, there have been many contra arguments against this system, some based on negative experiences made with it. Some say, it is impossible for reviewers to be free from bias. While in the strictly empirical sciences (natural sciences) it is less of a problem, it is very difficult for scholars in the normative sciences (humanities, philosophy, etc.) to evaluate a draft solely in terms of logic consistency and quality of the presented arguments without seeing it through the glasses of their own academic, professional and personal viewpoints and preferences. Then, a draft is not reviewed concerning its academic value but concerning its particular content and position, which is unfair. With this bias, the review system becomes unreliable: not the “best” science is supported, but the most “conform”. Unfairness might also arise from another factor: personal academic (often career-related) interests of the reviewers. Sometimes, they might see themselves as competitors of the evaluated author in a particular research field. Maybe they plan or currently conduct a study that is very similar to a study presented in a paper that they are asked to review. They might feel tempted to artificially prolong the review process in order to get their own paper published first. There even have been cases of theft of data and research ideas from drafts that have been sent to reviewers. Further objections against peer review are that often available reviewers lack competence that would be necessary to evaluate a paper properly, and that it often takes too long time (sometimes reviewers return their comments more than six months after they received the draft from the publisher.

Hence, peer review only works when certain ethical duties are enforced. Publishers have to ensure a high degree of confidentiality, making it impossible for reviewers to misuse the yet unpublished drafts they receive. Reviewers have to respect the intellectual property rights of authors. Publishers should try to ensure punctuality in the review process, for example by setting strict deadlines for communications and submissions. All in all, the review system requires a high level of professionalism among all involved parties (authors, publishers, reviewers), setting aside personal preferences and selfish interests.

3.4.4 Impact factors

Impact factors are used to get a measure for the quality of a researcher’s work. It is based on the assumption that “good articles” find their way into “good journals” while “not so good articles” can only be published in “not so well-established journals”. Therefore, journals calculate their impact factor as the average number of citations that articles in this journal get. The most renowned journals are Nature and Science with impact factors higher than 30. An impact factor lower than 1 is considered “bad”. A scientist will be happy to place an article in a journal with an impact factor higher than 5. When researchers present their achievements (for example when they apply for a better position), they add up all their articles’ impact factors (resp. those of the journals they are published in) as a measure for the quality of their research.

This practice has several disadvantages. First, it motivates scientists to split projects or studies into several sub-projects and publish them in many “small” essays rather than in one. The idea is that many “low impact” essays might add up to a higher impact than one “medium impact” paper (e.g., four times “1” is still better than one “3”). Moreover, authors are tempted to submit drafts to several journals at the time, thus causing a lot of editorial and reviewing work, just to see which journals accept their paper, then choose the one with the highest impact factor and withdraw their submission from the other journals. As mentioned in the section on authorship, the practice to add honorary authors is motivated by increasing the chance to be accepted by a high-impact journal. Also, many researchers tend to over-interpret and enthusiastically over-emphasise the importance of their studies, inflating the dramatic narrative by using vocabulary like “revolutionary” and “major break-through”, in order to give the illusion of extraordinary scientific, economic, societal or global significance, thus creating a bias.

As an alternative, it has been suggested to introduce a productivity index instead. This h index would be calculated as the average number of citations per article of an author. First, this would shift the factor of significance from the journals to the individual authors. Second, this might prevent the practice of excessive publishing of “small” publications since those kind of articles potentially lower a researcher’s h index.

3.4.5 Controversial research

Is there anything that can’t or shouldn’t be published? Can research findings be so controversial that it is advised to refrain from making them accessible to the public? Certainly, there are only very few examples at the edge of acceptability. Misuse of scientific insight in general can’t be a reason for holding back publication since with this argument almost nothing can be published. However, extremely dangerous or risky matters that could potentially facilitate severe cases of bioterrorism, for example the instructions for the production of the bird flu virus H5N1, have been critically discussed among scientists, peers, publishers and governmental agencies. A second reason to reject publication are ideology and worldview conflicts. For example, arguments against the publication of research results that support the naturalness of homosexuality have been raised in the conservative and religious USA, expressing worries about worldview collisions and social repressions. Fortunately, those fundamentalists’ positions usually have no power to suppress empirical evidence-based scientific findings.

3.4.6 Science and media

A very different way of “publishing” science is the communication with and through (mass) media or other public channels like science museums and information panels. There are many arguments in favour of engaging in public discourse and providing information about the state-of-the-art in science. As a social institution (or even “sphere”), it might be claimed a duty to communicate with the public and to respond to the public interest in scientific knowledge. On the other side, science journalists tend to look for hypes and catchy headlines, sometimes falsifying or exaggerating results. A good example for nonsensical science journalism is a report entitled “The center of the universe smells like raspberry“, based on researchers reporting the identification of a simple organic molecule (that is also present in raspberries) in the depth of the universe through spectral analyses. The problem lies not solely on the side of journalists. Also scientists contribute to miscommunication due to a low level of experience with public science communication or even due to intended populism, seeking public attention, therefore being biased in the way they present their research.

Maybe the only way to solve this problem is to train scientists for public communication and to make it obligatory for science journalists to have a scientific knowledge background. There are, actually, many chances for scientists to practice their public communication skills. You all might know the popular “TED talks” in which scientists present their research in a funny and entertaining way that is easy to understand, yet still mind-blowing. In Germany, many universities offer so called “Science Slams” (in analogy to “Poetry slams” in which writers can present poems, short stories or other literary works): Young researchers present their research project in an entertaining way in front of a non-scientific audience and can win prizes. I once participated and introduced my PhD thesis’ nano-scientific research on “microcontact printing” in analogy to “potato printing”, a technique popular in Kindergarten. This is very different from giving a talk at a scientific conference, but in some ways it opened new ways of thinking about my research. Explaining one’s research work to scientific laymen (try it on your grandparents or parents!) can be more challenging than discussing with an audience of professors and senior researchers! However it can be fun and helps overcoming the confined “ivory tower thinking” and get more “grounded”.


3.5 Mentorship

All scientists, even those who work in industry and laboratories in the private sector, start their careers at university as science students. As Master or PhD students, they have a supervisor, “principle investigator” or senior researcher, usually a professor, as their mentor. The relationship between student and mentor is in many ways crucial for the young scientist’s further careers:

  • The mentor is an idol, both scientifically and personally. In many ways, the student will do things in the same way as his or her mentor did. This includes “scientific thinking”, the way to identify and specify a scientific problem, the way to communicate with peers and handle critical issues, the style of writing research papers, interpersonal communication style, team leading and guiding, and much more.
  • The mentor familiarises the student with methodologies and conduct of research, introduces him/her to techniques, devices, experimental setups, etc.
  • The mentor introduces the student to the scientific community and the professional network. Here, the students forms first bonds to academics outside of his home institute, increasing job chances, finding postdoctoral positions, etc.
  • Last but not least, the mentor also impacts the student’s future job chances by giving a mark for the thesis.

Mentors – all those who work with students – almost never learn how to be good mentors. This often leads to problems. Not all academic scholars are “natural born mentors” by personality. The bigger problem is when mentors even intentionally and consciously exploit their power in the unsymmetrical mentor-student-relationship. Cases of harassment and discrimination have been reported. However, most ethical dilemmas in chemical education at university occur on a much more subtle level. Ethical challenges emerge during simply setting or marking a thesis. Being kind to a poor student has unintended consequences which are neither kind nor ethical. In fact, this kindness becomes less innocent when the lecturer’s job or promotion depends on a good pass rate. Failing students limit funds available for promotion and cast aspersions on their Professor’s teaching abilities. But the upshot is less obvious: the beneficiaries of this easy pass are our future postgraduate students, teachers, academics, attorneys, political leaders and experts in ethics. What is worse is that brilliant students are neglected or, at least, relatively downgraded. The challenge gets more complicated when the students enter the phase of their own research work: deciding how much assistance to give postgraduate students, estimating the difficulty of their research project, deciding on when and where to publish their work, all these are aspects that require tactic intuition. While the students’ interests are clearly their successful graduation, fair treatment (in comparison with others) and a smooth start into their further career (e.g. being provided with the necessary skills, ideally placing a first publication in their field of interest), the PI’s major focus is on funding, the management of research group resources, strategically well-timed and well-positioned publications, and a good reputation within and around their institute/faculty. Too high expectations and evaluation standards might scare away students, but when the degree can be obtained too fast and easy the PI risks a decline in credibility. The same factors that impact the current publication and funding practices also play a role at this stage of education:  The potential quantity of publications in low-impact journals is the overriding consideration in designing research projects. In other words, the more traditional utility- or curiosity-driven research approach is career-limiting – a luxury that few can afford. Consequently, data collection replaces hypothesis-driven research because training operators instead of educating academics and scientists is more profitable and consumes fewer resources, and results are guaranteed. Responsible for this situation is not primarily the individual scholar, but rather the systemic infrastructure manifested within the global scientific community. Interestingly, it has been shown that the abovementioned problems occur in almost every country and every cultural realm.

What is a good mentor? First, a good mentor takes enough time for his or her students. A problem of our times is an often too big work group size, with some professors having more than 50 students to supervise. Then, a mentor should develop clear and transparent rules for the collaboration. This can build mutual trust and avoid conflicts. I know a professor who told all the students who asked for joining his group that he doesn’t allow love-relationships between two members of the group. If two form a couple, one has to leave the group. You might think that is strange and intrudes the students’ privacy. On the other side, the professor has good reasons to establish this rule (maybe bad experiences with couples in his group, leading to trouble and low work efficiency whenever the couple had private problems). The important thing is: he made the rule clear and students can decide if they still want to join the group (accepting the rule) or look for another supervisor. Furthermore, a mentor should establish channels for confidential evaluation of the mentoring, which basically means that he or she is open for criticism and feedback. In an atmosphere of trust and co-operation, students are more likely to consult their “boss” directly whenever they feel that something doesn’t go well. The mentor should also always protect “whistleblowers”, those who report when they observe that other group members apparently show hints for misconduct or cause other trouble in any way. All in all, a good mentor promotes a psychologically safe and non-discriminatory work environment with a diverse workforce, regardless of students’ gender, cultural origin, political or religious views, etc.

Here, we can observe big cultural differences! I’d like to illustrate that with two sketches from a Chinese artist living in Germany, Yang Liu, who compared German customs and trends to Chinese ones (also applicable to Taiwan, I believe). The first is about the role of the boss in a team:


Illustration by Yang Liu, Berlin, 2007

In Germany, the boss is one of many co-workers, and his task is to be the team leader. He has more responsibility and, therefore, has a higher salary (probably), but that doesn’t make him deserve more respect than anybody else who brings in his or her skills. In my supervisor’s group, our Professor also went for lunch with us students – unimaginable in Asia! Here, the boss is much bigger than other co-workers, asking for (and getting) more respect. Students are much less likely to complain to the boss about their situation or even about the boss himself. Feedback is rarely given from student to professor. This, of course, has big influence on the supervisor-student-relationship!

Another illustration is about how to deal with problems:


Illustration by Yang Liu, Berlin, 2007


German people grow up in an environment that supports direct feedback and straightforward problem-solving. When something goes wrong, we are used to address it, communicate it with involved or responsible people and figure out a solution. In professional interactions, this helps making processes go smoothly and to improve them over a period of time. Taiwan, same as most other Asian societies, is a “problem-avoiding culture”. People tend to turn a blind eye to occurring troubles, hoping that there is a way around facing it. These things are important to know for both mentors and students! A German professor should know why his Asian students never consult him – it is not their shyness or impoliteness! German students who study in an Asian country should be prepared for the inappropriateness of consulting their supervisors with direct critical feedback!

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