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The Visiting Ethicist in the Graduate Classroom: Complement or Cop-out?

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Two or three times a year I'm asked to make a presentation on research ethics for a graduate course at Indiana University Bloomington, my home institution. Although I always have mixed feelings about such invitations, I don't remember ever turning one down. On the one hand, I'm always happy to advance the cause of research integrity in any small way, to get to know a new faculty member, and to meet a few graduate students; but on the other hand, I can never tell how much of an impact I have and how my visit fits (or doesn’t) with the rest of the class. Even if I’ve talked to the professor at some length and read the syllabus, I often wonder whether all I’m really doing is giving the professor an excuse not to cover research ethics on her or his own.

I put a lot of effort into trying to help other people teach research ethics, or teach it better, and I have always said that every responsible teacher of research should teach the responsible conduct of research. I am convinced that in the ideal case, every graduate science class should include some discussion of the ethics of research when possible. Some courses would have relatively little ethics coverage; others, such as methods courses, usually have the potential to cover a broad scope of ethical issues. Budding scientists and researchers naturally model themselves on the best faculty members in their discipline that they encounter; it's unlikely that a visiting ethicist can have a similar impact.

That said guest lecturers can make a valuable contribution to a course. As a class visitor, I find that the best sessions are those in which examples from the discipline are brought up by the professor or students. If someone asks, "Is X ethical?” I use my status as an outsider to try to get them to articulate the usually unspoken assumptions that inform their discipline as we explore the underlying issues before coming up with an answer. Many people have good ethical instincts and can quickly come up with a good approach to dealing with an ethical problem, but it seems to me that fewer graduate students are well equipped to analyze such problems when the instinctive reaction is inadequate or absent. Witnessing and taking part in a process of wrestling to identify, delimit, and more-or-less solve one ethical problem is a better educational experience than being given the Right Answers to a dozen.

Even when I think such a session has gone well, I don’t typically know whether it’s the only discussion of ethics for the whole semester, which I would find regrettable – responsible conduct is too important to be given short shrift, and I do not want to be any professor’s excuse not to engage the issues on her or his own.

On the other hand, if a professor is covering issues of scholarly integrity, it probably reinforces those points when an expert on ethical issues that cross disciplines addresses the same problem in a broader context. And if I say something that seemingly or actually contradicts a point already made, there’s great fodder for discussion of the pluralism of values that exists even in science, not to mention what can be done (instead of just giving up) when two or more reasonable approaches or opinions seem to conflict.

Graduate schools can have an important role in supporting faculty in teaching research integrity on their own, and can also do some match-making that can be fruitful in many ways. Cross-disciplinary relationships aren’t often easy to establish, but they can be profitable to all involved. In closing, I hope that deans, researchers in ethics education, ethics instructors, and faculty will share their ideas on promoting a productive relationship between ethicists and faculty members in the disciplines with me and the Project on Scholarly Integrity.

Kenneth Pimple
Director of Teaching Research Ethics Programs
Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions
Indiana University

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Posted by Josh Mahler at 10/31/2011 11:42:25 AM | 

Ethics is always are hard thing to teach as we all have our own ideas about what we class as ethical. To me truth and honesty go hand in hand with ethics, but that is not the case for others.
Posted by: ( Email: | Visit ) at 11/18/2011 2:23 AM

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