Fundamental Types of Research Dilemmas

Research presents a unique set of ethical challenges. Being aware of these challenges and being prepared to deal with them are vital to your success as a researcher. Do you think you are prepared? Can you can answer all of the following questions?

  • Who owns the laboratory notebook?
  • With whom can you discuss your research? What can you tell these individuals about your research?
  • Who owns the creative findings that will result from your work in the laboratory?
  • What is required for authorship in your laboratory? Will your name go on the by-line of any papers or presentations that result from your work?
  • What is required for inventorship in your laboratory? Will you be listed as an inventor or any new intellectual property that results from your work this summer?
  • Is it ever “OK” to copy something you read in print? What information should you cite (credit) when you write up your work? Do you know how to properly cite the work of others in any presentations and/or publications you will create?
  • Is it ever “OK” to “modify” data, omit data, or make up data?
  • What relationships if any do you have that might bias you or appear to bias you in the conduct or reporting of your research?
  • What, if any, are the hazards that are presented by your research project (reagents, products) to you, your colleagues, your institution, and the world? How will you minimize these dangers to yourself and others?


Falsification/Fabrication of Data

Falsification/Fabrication of Data

The integrity of research depends on the integrity of the data and the data record. As falsification and fabrication call into question the integrity of data and the data record, they represent serious issues in scientific ethics. Falsification is the practice of omitting or altering research materials, equipment, data, or processes in such a way that the results of the research are no longer accurately reflected in the research record. Fabrication is the practice of inventing data or results and recording and/or reporting them in the research record. Both of these schemes are probably among the most serious offenses in scientific research as they challenge the credibility of everyone and everything involved in a research effort. These offenses make it very difficult for scientists to move forward as it is unclear to anyone what if anything is true and can be trusted– can lead students and colleagues to waste precious time, effort, and resources investigating dead ends. Our interconnectedness makes us all vulnerable when one member acts irresponsibly.

A prime example of this is the case of wunderkind physicist Dr. Jan Hendrick Schon of Bell Laboratories. Allegations of fabrication and falsification of published data first came to light in 2002 when researchers presented Bells Laboratories with evidence that data presented in five papers published over a two year period were suspicious. Noise, which is usually random in pattern, on data in two of the figures looked identical. Only a short time later, the authenticity of data appearing in nine more figures published in eight additional papers were also called into question by the physics community. Ultimately, Bell Laboratories concluded that Dr. Schon either falsified or fabricated data appearing in publications between 1998 and 2001 and terminated his employment. Co-authors retracted seven articles published in Nature and eight articles appearing in Science. Independent efforts by scientists at IBM and Delft University (Netherlands) failed to reproduce data from several studies. Lucent Technologies’ executive summary and report of the investigation can be found here. Since Schon and colleagues had published a large body of work in recent years and since the work was considered to be revolutionary, the impact of his malfeasance on research in the field of field effect transistors (FETs) has been said to be enormous. Govert Schilling in an article appearing in Science magazine in 2002 (G. Schilling. (2002) Science 296, 1584-1585) estimated that over 100 groups worldwide were working on related projects when the misconduct came to light. In a number of these laboratories postdoctoral and graduate students had been unsuccessfully working on efforts to replicate and build on Schon’s work.

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Ownership of Research Materials and Data

Normally research materials such as chemical reagents, solvents, etc. and miscellaneous supplies including notebooks, pens, zip disks, CDs, paper, etc. are provided by your research advisor and workplace for your use in carrying out your research project. These materials are purchased using internal or external funds specifically designated to support the project on which you are working. This means that these materials are the property of the research laboratory and/or institution where you are carrying out your research. Perhaps the most important of these materials is the laboratory notebook. Since it is a record of all of the work that has been performed on a specific project, it has immense value in terms of the intellectual property (research ideas, evidence of reduction to practice, etc.) for your advisor and your workplace. For this reason, it is not acceptable to remove laboratory notebooks or any other materials and supplies from the research lab without your advisor’s express permission nor is it acceptable to remove pages from the notebook or to photocopy pages without obtaining express permission to do so. Note that many laboratory notebooks, particularly those that you may be required to purchase for your science and engineering laboratory courses, are designed to allow the user to make a copy of the contents of the notebook. Don’t assume that simply because the notebook design allows you to make a copy that you have your advisor and/or your workplace’s permission to make and retain photocopies of the notebook contents.

It is also not acceptable to borrow and use research materials for demonstrations, science fairs or any other projects and/or activities outside the workplace without first obtaining the express permission of your advisor and workplace. There are two potential issues here: intellectual property rights and laboratory safety (liability issues), too. In some cases, the materials you may use in your work may have been acquired from other research groups and/or companies through legal signed “transfer of materials” agreements that limit their use. Even if there are no signed agreements, unanticipated problems resulting from the use of misuse of the research materials may pose health risks that could pose serious legal liability issues for you and your employer.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the ownership of research materials and data and follow
  • Always ask first and obtain written permission from your advisor to use or remove any materials outside the laboratory


If there is one issue with which you are likely at least somewhat familiar, it is plagiarism. That said, although many students have heard the term “plagiarism” most are unclear exactly what plagiarism really is and why the issue is taken so seriously in academe and the scientific profession as whole. In this section, we’ll discuss plagiarism and outline some useful strategies you can implement today in order to prevent problems now and in the future.

Stories of incidents involving plagiarism abound on most college campuses. The development of the internet and the ability afforded by computers and computer technology to copy and paste from written documents has no doubt exascerbated the problem of plagiarism. At the same time however, computer technology has proven useful in facilitating the detection of plagiarism, too. A good example of this was described in 2000 in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article written by Julianne Basinger. Then freshman Seth Weitberg was doing research on the internet about education. Seth noticed that the text of a paper allegedly written by Mr. Scott D. Miller, President of Wesley College (Delaware), was markedly similar in content and form to that of a speech written eight years earlier by Claire Gaudiani, President of Connecticut College and e-mailed both Mr. Miller and Ms. Gaudiani concerning his observation. Subsequently, irregularities were also observed in a biography of Mr. Miller that appeared on the Wesley College website. Links to the original papers and a side-by-side comparison of a number of excerpts from the two papers can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

In a more recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Assistant Professor of Political Science Kim Lanegran describes her own poignant brush with plagiarism from the perspective of the victim. Shortly after defending her dissertation, Dr. Lanegran received a telephone call from a doctoral student at another university who had read one of her publications and was interested in whether Dr. Lanegran had written any other papers on the same topic. Excited by the interest of a fellow student in her work, Dr. Lanegran copied her dissertation onto a diskette and mailed it to the student. Three years later, she obtained a copy of the student’s dissertation through interlibrary loan and was shocked to discover that much of it was taken word for word from her dissertation and that her work was not credited anywhere in the volume. Subsequently, Dr. Lanegran contacted the student’s graduate school with evidence that the dissertation was plagiarized and the student’s Ph.D. was quietly withdrawn. The incident shook her to her core. She describes the impact of it in her Chronicle of Higher Education article as having “nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe’s core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.”

Plagiarism is defined by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Science and Technology as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.” Plagiarism is fundamentally an issue relating to intellectual property and is grounded in the fundamental idea that words represent ideas which are a form of intellectual property and that the unique expression of those ideas in written format belongs to and is owned by the person who expressed them. Consequently, it isn’t acceptable to copy phrases (short groups of words), sentences, paragraphs, or whole articles written by another person or group of people.

If indeed someone believes it is necessary to use that person’s words in order to accurately and adequately convey the ideas involved, then it is necessary to do two things:

  1. Place all of the words taken from the original work within quotation marks;
  2. Cite the original published work(s) in your bibliography.

There is a specific format to use when citing other people’s original work, no matter the form (technical report, communication, journal article, meeting abstract, etc.) or medium of the communication (book, journal, webpage, personal communication, etc.). The specific format requirements are unique to each scientific/engineering field or discipline and/or technical journal and vary widely even within a field. Today, there are many computer programs available today to assist you in preparing correctly formatted bibliographies. Examples of some of the more commonly used programs are:

Many colleges, universities, and companies provide students and employees with access to one or more of these bibliographic programs on their computer networks. Consult your Information Systems and/or college/university library personnel to find out whether or not you may have access to one or more of these programs. If not, as a student you may be able to purchase the software either at your bookstore or on-line at a reduced academic rate (with proof that you are currently enrolled full-time as a student in a degree-granting program).

Ignorance Is Not A Valid Excuse for Plagiarism

Sometimes students unwittingly plagiarize. A common mistake many people make when they read something and don’t understand what they have read is that they copy down the writer’s words with the intent of later changing the language. Unfortunately, later never arrives. Most people simply forget that the words jotted in their notes aren’t their own. In this case ignorance is not bliss nor is it a legitimate excuse for plagiarizing. A better idea is to simply commit to always use your own words when you write anything. If you don’t understand something and feel compelled to copy the author’s words down, then place them within quotation marks so you know that these words aren’t your own and be sure to include the citation for the original work so you won’t have to struggle later to try to identify the original source.

If you find that you are having a difficult time expressing your thoughts clearly using your own words, then this is likely a sign that you really don’t understand the concept as well as you think that you do. If you don’t understand something you are reading, discuss it with your advisor, other teachers, or peers. When you think you understand the concept, write it down in your own words and again consult your advisor, teachers, etc. if you are concerned whether you have expressed the new ideas accurately or not.


Sometimes people will substitute one or more words in a sentence or longer section of another person’s work which retains the original author’s sentence structure, organization of thoughts and ideas without proper attribution of the work borrowed. This is called paraphrasing and is widely regarded as a form of plagiarism. It is not an acceptable practice in the science and engineering professions.

Summary of Useful Guidelines for Writing

  • Always use your own words when you write;
  • If you must use someone else’s words, place them within quotation marks and cite the original work in your bibliography; and
  • When you write about facts that are the ideas or work of others, cite, cite, cite!


J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. “The Similarities of 2 Presidents’ Papers.” Avail. URL:
K. Lanegran. (2003) Chronicle of Higher Education. July 2. “Fending Off a Plagiarist.” Avail. URL:

Authorship/Assignment of Credit

Authorship is an important method of identifying those individuals who have been responsible for the ideas, experimental work, interpretation, and written expression of the work submitted for presentation at professional conferences and/or publication in a technical journal. As such there is great responsibility attached to authorship both for the authors named on the paper, the institutions with which they are affiliated, and the publisher or professional organization associated with the conference or technical journal. Authorship is important to the professional reputation of all involved. Criteria for authorship do vary somewhat between disciplines, institutions, and individual laboratories. However, criteria generally require that an individual:

  • Made a significant, identifiable, original intellectual contribution to the project. This means that the person must have done more than merely serve as a pair of hands (following SOPs, recording data, doing data entry, performing data analysis, typing, etc.) in executing a series of experiments;
  • Understands the study reported in the paper as a whole; and that he/she
  • Participated in the writing of the technical paper

As such, the author is capable of and responsible for defending the quality of the study, the technical interpretation of the data, and the written expression of the work as articulated in the paper.

The order of authorship is also an important issue in science and engineering. In general, the order of the names indicates the relative contributions that each person made to the paper. The first person named on the by-line of a paper is the person who is credited with having made the most significant contributions to that study. Often the last name on the paper is that of the principal investigator, in academics, the professor in whose work the research study was carried out.

The requirements apply to all involved in the research project – supervisors as well as to researchers in other words, simply providing mentorship doesn’t qualify someone for authorship on a paper any more than being a laboratory technician does. For the same reasons, being a member of a team working on a research problem doesn’t automatically translate into authorship on a paper. Authorship is awarded to all contributors based on their professional contributions to the work described in the manuscript in question. Another important point is that age is not a criterion for authorship. High school students and undergraduates have been authors – even first authors – on technical papers published in high quality journals. Nor is the length of time spent or the extent of effort made on work a legitimate argument for authorship. It is the quality of the contributions that determines authorship. Employment status, whether you work on a project as a volunteer, receive academic credit, or money, is also not a consideration in determining authorship. Finally, it is important to realize that even if authorship is initially offered to you on a paper by your advisor, the offer may later be withdrawn if your intellectual contributions to the work, for whatever reason, don’t turn out to be those originally anticipated.


  • Make sure that you understand what it takes to be an author on a paper in the lab where you work.
  • Discuss the criteria for authorship with your advisor at the outset of your research project or as soon as possible thereafter to avoid any misunderstandings.
  • Keep detailed notes and document your contributions to the project in writing in your laboratory notebook.


Another idea that you may not be familiar with is confidentiality. If your research project is funded by private industry, your institution and your advisor may have signed some sort of written, legally binding agreement called a confidentiality agreement that may limit or prohibit some or any oral and/or written communication with others outside the financial/research relationship concerning the project. These agreements also often limit presentation and/or publication of project findings to those outside of the confidentiality agreement. Thus, you may not be able to present your findings at professional conferences or publish your findings in the peer-reviewed literature. Consequently, it is important to inquire about any restrictive requirements that could affect your project and/or your ability to discuss your work at the beginning of your research project.


  • Make sure that you understand what your advisor’s policies are regarding confidentiality.
  • Do not share information about your research with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining permission to do so from your research advisor.
  • If someone shares a research grant application, unpublished manuscript, or unpublished research results, be sure to keep this information confidential unless the person gives you permission otherwise.


Clearly, as a community, researchers will be able to affect the greatest progress when they have access to all the information currently known relevant to their research problem. The more information we have the greater the likelihood that we will innovate, collaborate, share and make progress. Thus, openness is an important issue affecting everyone in science.

Important issues in regard to openness include:

Conflict Of Interest

A conflict of interest occurs whenever you have personal interests that conflict, could affect even compromise the judgments you need to make as an impartial, objective scientist. For example, it would likely be very difficult to read and impartially review a technical paper written by a hostile competitor or by a very dear friend and mentor. In the same it would be difficult to publish the results of a biomedical study you conducted with funding provided by private industry that demonstrated that the company’s flagship drug had no more efficacy than a placebo in treating disease. Consequently, colleges and universities, granting agencies, publishers, and private industry require applicants, reviewers and other evaluators to disclose any financial, educational, employment, or other relationships that could threaten objectivity via written disclosures of conflicts of interest. These documents protect the integrity of the individuals, institutions and of science overall.

The following are useful questions to ask in order to ascertain if there is a conflict of interest present.

  • Do I or anyone affiliated closely with me have any potential to financially or professionally benefit from the relationship?
  • Could our relationship improperly advantage or disadvantage my employer or anyone else improperly?


  • Report to your advisor as soon as possible any relationships or circumstances that may represent conflicts of interest relevant to your research project so he/she can figure out how to properly manage the situation.

Sharing of Research Materials

On the face of it, it might seem as if it is a mute point to discuss the sharing of research materials including biological organisms, data, even ideas. After all, how can science and engineering thrive and grow if scientists don’t share needed materials with each other in the greater scientific community? In fact, in some fields, it is standard practice to deposit materials and data in national repositories in order to speed discovery and innovation. Examples of such national data repositories include The Protein Data Bank, a repository for protein crystallographic and nuclear magnetic resonance structural data, the BioMedResBank (BMRB), a biological NMR data repository, the Yeast Resource Center Public Data Repository (YRC PDR), repository for experimental data from baker’s yeast, and the Central Aspergillus Data Repository (CADRE), a repository for genomic data from Aspergillus. However, as discussed above, ideas are a form of intellectual property and as such have significant potential commercial value (patents, trade secrets, etc.) In order to realize this value, it may be necessary to restrict communication of ideas and materials outside the research team as, for example, in the early stages of the patent process or in the early stages of the scientific publication process for which novelty is an important review criterion. Some repositories sensitive to the researcher’s need to protect the novelty of their work will allow researchers to deposit data and agree not to release it until it has been published. Concerns have driven the NIH to issue a policy statement regarding the sharing of research materials for biomedical research (see: NIH Policy on Sharing of Model Organisms for Biomedical Research.) The point here being that this is a good example of an area in which there is ongoing active debate.


  • As a student working in someone else’s research laboratory, it is important for you to find out what your advisor’s policies are regarding the sharing of research materials and follow them.
  • It isn’t a wise idea to discuss unpublished results whether they are yours or those of a lab mate with anyone outside your research group without first obtaining your advisor’s permission.

Industrial Sponsorship of Academic Research

Industrial sponsorship of research is increasingly commonplace in colleges and universities. Such sponsorship can be invaluable for all involved – providing students not only financial support but also firsthand insights into industry. Such sponsorship though often comes at a cost, the relationship may result in conflicts of interest that can impact you as a student. For example, presentation and/or publication of research findings may be delayed for an extended period of time – months even years - or may be prohibited by the company in an effort to protect, develop, and commercialize the technologies involved.

Personal Misrepresentation

Personal misrepresentation is a form of misconduct in which an individual misrepresents his/her qualifications, technical skills, and/or professional or educational achievements. The issue arises most frequently on resumes or curriculum vitae (academic version of a resume). Examples of personal misrepresentation include:

  • Inflating one’s grade-point average (GPA), class rank, honors;
  • Claiming expertise in a technical skill when one has only a superficial acquaintance with the technique or instrument; and/or
  • Listing publications that have not yet even been written as “in preparation” or even more serious “submitted” or “in press.”

There are several important issues here. First, the fundamental problem with doing any of the above is that it is willful, considered, and dishonest as such it calls into question your moral character. Second, when an employer looks to hire someone with a specific skill, it is because they need someone with the expertise now to solve existing problems. If you don’t have the skills required, then you won’t be able to perform competently and most likely won’t have the job very long even if you were to be successful in getting hired. Consequently, the bottom line is that it is critical to accurately convey your qualifications. Don’t overstate your skills and/or accomplishments.

Perhaps no case is more gut-wrenching than the story told in 2000 by Joel Hardi in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Mr. Puneet Bhandari, a then Columbia University undergraduate, who in fall 1998 went to his anthropology professor Dr.Greg Downey with a story about why he was falling behind in his course. Mr. Bhandari told Dr. Downey that he and his twin brother, Parag, had been in a car accident and that his twin was on life support. Over the semester, as Mr. Bhandari fell behind, the story grew more grim with Parag eventually dying. Later, Mr. Bhandari asked Dr. Downey for a letter of recommendation for medical school in which Dr. Downey of course praised Mr. Bhandari’s courage in the face of his twin’s death. Apparently, Mr. Bhandari when asked about his brother in a medical school interviewer, told the interviewer his twin, an investment banker, was doing well. Confused, the interviewer contacted Columbia which initiated an investigation that revealed that Mr. Bhandari had told the same story in at least two other courses and which led to Mr. Bhandari’s dismissal from Columbia. Tragically one week after a story appeared in a local newspaper: Mr. Bhandari committed suicide by jumping in front of a train.


J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 14. "Student Who Was Suspended for Fabricating Twin's Death Loses Suit Against Columbia U."
J. Hardi. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. April 25. "Columbia U. Is Shaken by Suicide of Student Suspended for Fabricating Brother's Death."