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Ethics Code for Scientists?

BBC reports that scientists working in the UK government have adopted a Scientific Ethics Code, written by Professor Sir David King. Here is the Code:

Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date

Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest

Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists

Ensure that research is justified and lawful

Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment

Discuss issues science raises for society

Do not mislead; present evidence honestly

Several bloggers have responded to this. Here is Janet’s take:

They seem like quite sensible principles — so sensible, in fact, that you might ask why they need to be formalized in a code of ethics. Don’t scientists already know that they should be honest, be fair to their fellow scientists, avoid conflicts of interest, keep up with the literature in their field, and all that good stuff?

Surely they do, but we’ve noted before that knowing what you ought to do and actually doing it are two different things. The question then becomes, how exactly does having a code of ethics help?

Oldcola has several suggestions to edit or add to the Code – I like them all but of course I especially like this one:

In general, I would like to make it mandatory to spend a week per year discussing issues science raises for society for every single scientist. And maybe mandatory to read and rate papers on PLoS ONE. Now, come on, I’m not joking. And yes, I do started doing so myself, with a minimal objective of 3/week.
And maybe the scientists should be trained to blog, also.

Perhaps they will discuss the Code at the ESF-ORI First World Conference on

What do you think?


  1. #1 Colst
    September 14, 2007

    I would love to read, rate, and comment on PLoS One articles, but there’s not much there for an analytical chemist. I know it’s off-topic, but the post reminded me of a question that Bora might be in a position to answer: Is there any sort of organized effort to increase the non-life-sciences content?

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    September 14, 2007

    A useful point of comparison might be the “Model Rules of Professional Conduct” for attorneys.


    These rules contain very detailed prescriptions and proscriptions concerning the kinds of situations attorneys frequently encounter. It is tens of thousands of words.

    The ethics code for scientists you quoted seems laughably vague and general in comparison. It’s basically like telling scientists, “Don’t do anything wrong”. Well, yeah, no kidding. The issue is how to figure out what is right and what is wrong in particular situations.

  3. #3 coturnix
    September 14, 2007

    Colst: Yes, we are working on it. The first paper in a field is hardest to get. The subsequent ones are easier. Do you have a mansucript that can get it started for the analytical chemistry?

    PhysioProf: I agree – see the discussion on Janet’s post as well in the same vein.

  4. #4 Colst
    September 14, 2007

    Thanks for answering. Unfortunately, I’ve just started in a new lab in a different subfield, so it may be a while before I have anything to submit (even then, there will be the issue of the PI’s openness to the idea). Is there anything you can tell us about the efforts?

  5. #5 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 15, 2007

    The ethical codes I have seen before are either regulation for medical or biological enterprizes, or codes provided by unions (to avoid conflicts, help raise the status of a profession, et cetera).

    Those haven’t been especially detailed.

  6. #6 captainlaser
    September 15, 2007

    Interesting, but a pretty soft code of ethics.

    I would say that

    Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment

    should be

    Minimise adverse impacts on people, animals and the environment

    The work I do does impact people and the environment but I hope in a positive way.

    Back in the day (1969), I took a course from Charlie Schwartz at Berkeley called “Social Responsibility of the Scientist”. One of our “pledges” at the end of the course was not to use our science in aid of “militarism”. I would encourage that to be in this code of ethics.

  7. #7 Anonymous
    September 16, 2007

    Back in the day (1969), I took a course from Charlie Schwartz at Berkeley called “Social Responsibility of the Scientist”. One of our “pledges” at the end of the course was not to use our science in aid of “militarism”. I would encourage that to be in this code of ethics.

    That’s totally infeasible, except perhaps at Berkeley in the 60′s, because a substantial fraction of scientists work on military-funded projects (or even classified work for the government). One can debate exactly what it means to aid militarism, but it would be next to impossible to formulate this in a way that almost all scientists would agree to. A code of ethics is useful only if almost everyone agrees with it. If, let’s say, 25% of scientists routinely and publicly break one of the requirements, then it undermines the entire code. It’s better to leave the issue out entirely.