INSA’s new book examines Indian science’s ethical problems - IndiaBioscience


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“Ethics in Science Education, Research and Governance” – a recent book by a team of Indian National Science Academy (INSA) fellows couldn’t have been released at a more opportune moment in the timeline of Indian science.

Reports of plagiarism, scientific misconduct and lack of ethics have made several headlines this year. As per the Retraction Watch Database, in 2019 alone, up to 76 research articles published by Indian researchers have been served retraction notices. Occasionally, papers are retracted because of an unintentional error. However, more often than not, papers are retracted because of unethical conduct, data manipulation or simple plagiarism.

Whether committed intentionally or in ignorance, these unethical practices have become the new monster of Indian science as they end up compromising ​“truth, which is the goal of science”, say the authors of the new book.

In a hope to address the rise of unethical practices in the Indian scientific community, a group of INSA fellows and other invited experts met in June 2018 to deliberate on ethics and its practice in Indian science. It was here that the concept of this book first took shape. The ideas and thoughts discussed in this meeting have been expanded upon in each chapter of the book. A team of eighteen researchers has contributed to the book, with each chapter being authored by a different set of researchers.

Ethics in research and higher education

Higher education in science is perhaps the first step to starting a career in science. One of the first chapters in the book discusses the need to inculcate the right ethical values at this stage. Binod Kumar Tripathi, Alok Gardia, and Bhavana Behal, the authors of this chapter, say that training in ethics should be integrated with the curriculum. They also describe nine different postulates that can help underpin high ethical standards among students. Some of these postulates are respect for intellectual property, novelty in publication, and objectivity.

One important postulate discussed in this chapter delves into ethical issues pertaining to teachers, who play a crucial role in the entire academic structure. A teacher’s behaviour and conduct can have a lasting impact on students. Their behaviour can be a determinant for what is ethical and acceptable in science and what is not. It is therefore imperative that teachers adhere to a code of high ethical conduct and be committed to professional growth through continuous study and research. The chapter lists suggestions for teachers, following which they can set the right examples for students to emulate.

It is imperative that teachers adhere to a code of high ethical conduct and be committed to professional growth through continuous study and research.

The third chapter in the book focuses on ethics in research. It lays out a roadmap to a fundamental step in any researcher’s carer – choosing a topic of research. The choice should be made in favour of ideas that are original and not copied from others, say Subhash Chandra Lakhotia and Praveen Chaddah, the authors of this chapter.

The authors next draw attention to the process of collaboration. Increasingly, in today’s research environment, a collaboration between several researchers and different institutes is becoming common. In such an environment it is necessary to ensure that the interests of all collaborating parties are protected. According to the authors, the best way to go about this is to clearly outline the basis of credit sharing right at the start of the collaboration. This will help avoid any misunderstandings or disputes at later stages of collaboration.

This chapter also addresses the issue of mentorship of newly recruited researchers and also of young PhD students. It broadly describes the scope of ethical practices that should be adopted to help young researchers and PhD students thrive.

Science is a very empirical endeavour, and the fourth chapter in the book goes into great detail about what practices are considered ethical in conducting experiments, recording them and then putting your results out in front of the world. Written by Munishwar Nath Gupta and Bittianda Kuttapa Thelma, this chapter is filled with practical advice, interspersed with several anecdotes to drive the message home.

On publishing, governance and public engagement

The fifth chapter of the book digs deep into the process of publishing in science. Publishing is the most common way to disseminate science. So, when an error goes unchecked during publishing or unethical practices creep into the process, wrong or false information spreads far and wide.

Falsity in published work is not just detrimental for a researcher and his/​her institution’s reputation but it also has an enduring negative impact on research efforts that may have used such false information as the basis for their experiments. Therefore, the authors of this chapter, Subhash Chandra Lakhotia and Srinivasan Chandrasekaran, emphasize that researchers must adhere to the highest standards of ethical behaviour when publishing their work.

They recommend that all authors, editors, reviewers, and publishers follow the guidelines laid down by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). They also share some additional guidelines about the type of authorships researchers should stay away from, choosing the right journal to publish one’s work in, and using pre-print archives.

Falsity in published work is not just detrimental for a researcher and his/​her institution’s reputation but it also has an enduring negative impact on research efforts

No scientific institute can expect to succeed without able and ethical governance. In the seventh chapter, authors Manohar Lal Munjal and Ashok Kumar Singhvi examine several governance-related issues common to research/​scientific institutions. They discuss relevant day-to-day matters like recruitment of scientific staff, funding of sponsored research, recognition of scientific excellence, choosing of academic leaders, etc and lay out the likely ethical pitfalls in each of these areas.

In the subsequent chapter, Sunil Mukhi and Nandula Raghuram draw attention to science outreach. In no uncertain words, they emphasize that scientists must take their work to the public and help in improving public understanding of science. This is especially important when research is funded by public money. The researchers can engage via the press or through social media.

However, while engaging in outreach, the authors direct researchers to keep in mind the following principles: ​“do good, do no harm, respect privacy, respect confidentiality, be sensitive to vulnerable people and the environment, maintain scientific objectivity, adhere to truthfulness and healthy skepticism, declare caveats and conflicts of interest and, avoid self-aggrandizement in whatever is communicated and the way it is communicated”.

Scientists must take their work to the public and help in improving public understanding of science.

In outreach, the responsibility to uphold ethics is not limited to researchers, but also extends to journalists who communicate science. They should make sure research outcomes are not exaggerated, reporting is accurate and all caveats and exceptions are spelled out in clear terms.

Gender and Ethics

Towards the end of the book, in the eighth chapter, Shobhona Sharma, LS Shashidhara, Tanusri Saha-Dasgupta, and Rohini Madhusudan Godbole, look at the ethical issues associated with gender-bias. Traditionally, gender bias has not been included in the ambit of ethical issues pertaining to science. The authors of this chapter, however, say that making sexual harassment a moral or ethical issue and not just a legal one can help reduce its occurrence.

The more explicit cases of gender harassment are easier to identify and act against. But, it is the subtle forms of bias, often existing unnoticed, that end up increasing inequities for women in science. The authors discuss several different ways in which these biases manifest and offer recommendations to address these issues. For example, when discussing career opportunities, men and women are often subjected to differential standards when evaluating performance in the workplace. ​“Such behavior, however unintentional, results over a long time in accumulation of advantages for the career of the male over the female academic,” write the authors.

Making sexual harassment a moral or ethical issue and not just a legal one can help reduce its occurrence.

The last chapter of the book, authored by Kambadur Muralidhar, Amit Ghosh, and Ashok Kumar Singhvi, provide a series of recommendations to address the whole gamut of ethical issues discussed in preceding chapters, which will come handy to any researcher grappling with an ethical issue.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/indian-scenario/insas-new-book-examines-indian-sciences-ethical-problems