Lesson 4, Honesty in Reporting Research

Kenneth Abbott, Mepham High School, Bellmore, Long Island, NY.

Overview of Lesson

Courses for Which the Lesson is Intended
All science classes.
Types of teaching/learning activities employed in this lesson
Students view and discuss a video on dishonesty. Then they have a homework assignment to apply this discussion to household products that have resulted from scientific research by asking what dangers these products might pose if the research behind them had been falsified or misrepresented.
Categories that best describe this Lesson
Behavior of scientists.
Behavior of students.
Ethics/values issues raised by this lesson
Importance of laboratory honesty, especially in research that has a direct impact on human health and welfare.

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Lesson Plan

  1. Designed for use at the beginning of science classes that include a laboratory component. The teacher outlines the requirements of laboratory work in the class. The teacher then asks the students what they think about the importance of not cheating or fudging when collecting data.
  2. Following a brief discussion of their ideas, the teacher shows the first few minutes of the Nova video, Do Scientists Cheat?, which emphasizes the importance of honesty in data reporting. [Note: Like most Nova videos that are more than three years old, Do Scientists Cheat?, which was produced by WGBH, Boston in 1988, is no longer available for purchase or loan from the producer. It is, however in the collection of many libraries, academic institution and other video archives from which it may be borrowed. One such source is the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, phone (608) 263-3512, fax to (608) 263-4031, e-mail to hamel@primate.wisc.edu, write to the Primate Center Library, 1220 Capitol Court, Madison, WI 53715, or request it (video #VT0113) through interlibrary loan at your local library.] Then the video is fast-forwarded to the segment in which 8th graders are conducting a pond study. Before showing this segment, students are asked how honest they think the 8th graders will be in reporting their data. Following the showing of that segment, students are invited to discuss their reactions.
  3. The teacher highlights the idea that students, and researchers in general, should not anticipate what they think they will find and alter their observations to match their preconceived notions. The teacher indicates that student projects will not be graded on the basis of the conclusions reached so much as the quality of the process.
  4. The last segment of the video is then shown. This features Robert Sprague, a researcher who reported the fabrication of data by someone who was doing research intended to benefit mental patients in a state hospital. Sprague stresses the importance of honesty in science research because of the risks dishonesty poses to the general population.
  5. Students are then given a homework writing assignment: Find five things in their household that they think were developed from scientific research. For each item, they are asked describe the sorts of dangers these products might pose if the research behind them had been falsified or misrepresented. Time permitting, the student examples can be discussed during the next class period.

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This is one of many ways to introduce the idea that honesty in conducting and reporting scientific research is fundamental both to good science and to the public interest. It is important to emphasize that what is at stake is not merely the reputation, and possibly the career, of scientists who get caught cheating, but the well-being of others. It is not just the well-being of the general public that can be seriously affected by the fabrication, falsification, or misrepresentation of data. As the case of Robert Sprague shows, those who report scientific misconduct may go through hardships. Although his wife was dying of cancer at the time, Sprague was so concerned about the fabrication of data he discovered, that he took on the responsibilities of a whistleblower. In fact, it was partly because of the realization that his wife's well-being depended on honest, reliable research regarding drugs and treatment that Sprague was motivated to act on behalf of others who are similarly dependent. Sprague's article, The Voice of Experience (Science and Engineering Ethics, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 1998, pp. 33-44), chronicles some of his experiences and those of other whistleblowers. Often it is not only those on whom the whistle is blown who challenge whistleblowers, but also institutions within which those accused work. Institutions also wish to preserve their public reputation as reliable. They may also find it difficult to accept the idea that one of their researchers has cheated, and they may feel accused of themselves failing to monitor carefully the work of the accused. In Sprague's case, he found that, even though he had submitted lengthy documentation of data fabrication at another institution, he was the first to be investigated; and it took several years for the case to be resolved. For a good account of another well-known fabrication case, see Case Study #1 in Chapter 4 of Section I. For an statements about the importance of integrity in science, see: Sigma Xi's booklet, Honor in Science (Research Triangle Park, NC, 1991); and the Commission on Research Integrity's report, Integrity and Misconduct in Research, 2nd ed. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1993).

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Cite this page: "Lesson 4, Honesty in Reporting Research" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 7/13/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Sunday, November 29, 2015 <onlineethics.org/Education/precollege/scienceclass/lessonplans/part2intro/lesson4.aspx>