This material is designed to provide assistance to those involved in ethics education in physics. It is not intended to be a complete discussion of all topics in ethics relevant to the physics community. Rather, it is designed to give the reader some feel for the breadth of relevant topics, to point the reader towards useful resources, and to suggest ways in which this material could be addressed in a classroom setting.
The underlying premise of this work is that much has already been written about ethics in physics, but most of this existing material is not readily located by searching on the...
The underlying premise of this work is that much has already been written about ethics in physics, but most of this existing material is not readily located by searching on the terms “ethics” and “physics”. These chapters will not describe ethical issues and case studies in detail but instead will point the reader to sources that do supply the more detailed perspective. The intent is to identify resources that can conveniently be used as reading assignments in undergraduate or graduate level physics classes. Part of the challenge in making ethical decisions is dealing with the complexity that real-world situations introduce. For that reason, where possible sources in which physicists describe cases they have had personal experience with will be used.
Incorporated into the description of each resource will be suggestions on how to run a class discussion based on the material. It is hard to over-emphasize the usefulness of guided classroom discussion as a means for providing multiple perspectives and further insight into ethical issues. It is helpful to ground these discussions in the professional codes discussed in Chapter 1.
Chapter 0: Introduction: Pedagogy and Assessment
Using case studies
Managing class discussions
Other activities to engage the mind
About this guide
Chapter 1: Ethical Codes
Section 1.1: Introduction
Section 1.2: The American Physical Society Guidelines on Ethics
Section 1.3: Other American Institute of Physics codes
Section 1.4: Physics codes outside of the United States
Section 1.5: Codes from other fields
Section 1.6: Ethical standards implied by institutional policies
Section 1.7: Human subjects research issues: sometimes overlooked in physics
Chapter 2: Laboratory Practices
Section 2.1 Introduction
Section 2.2: Research misconduct and how it harms the scientific community
Section 2.3: Carelessness and how it harms the scientific community
Section 2.4: Computational physics
Section 2.5: Laboratory safety
Section 2.6: How common is research misconduct in physics?
Chapter 3: Data: Recording, Managing, and Reporting
Section 3.1: Introduction
Section 3.2: The lab notebook
Section 3.3: Data management and archiving
Section 3.4: Digital images
Section 3.5: Reporting results
Section 3.6: Case studies
Chapter 4: Publication Practices
Section 4.1: Introduction
Section 4.2: Authorship
Section 4.3: Citations
Section 4.4: Plagiarism
Section 4.5: Self-plagiarism, dual submission, and fragmented publication
Section 4.6: Errata and retractions
Section 4.7: Conflicts of interest
Section 4.8: Publication metrics
Section 4.9: Journal quality
Section 4.10: Publication in the electronic age
Chapter 5: Peer Review
Section 5.1: Introduction
Section 5.2: Fairness
Section 5.3 Participation
Section 5.4: Timeliness
Section 5.5: Confidentiality
Section 5.6: Conflicts of interest
Section 5.7: Career advancement
Section 5.8: Textbooks
Chapter 6: Underrepresented Groups in Physics
Section 6.1: Introduction—The need for diversity
Section 6.2: Statistics
Section 6.3: APS policy statements
Section 6.4: Explicit bias
Section 6.5: Systemic bias
Section 6.6: Implicit bias
Section 6.7: Programs of the American Physical Society and other organizations
Section 6.8: Role models
Chapter 7: Physics and Military Research
Section 7.1: Introduction
Section 7.2: The Manhattan Project
Section 7.3: The Strategic Defense Initiative
Section 7.4: Arms control in the age of nuclear weapons
Section 7.5: Dual-use technology
Section 7.6: General discussion prompts for the entire chapter
Chapter 8: Climate Change
Section 8.1: Introduction
Section 8.2: Observational data
Section 8.3: Some elements in a climate model
Section 8.4: Global Climate Models
Section 8.5: Focused action
Section 8.6: Broader action on climate change
Chapter 9: Communicating Science to the General Public
Section 9.1: Introduction
Section 9.2: Communicating about climate change
Section 9.3: Communicating with the media
Section 9.4: Communicating with political leaders
Codes of ethics in scientific organizations serve to identify the consensus on ethical standards within those communities. For the same reason that we might introduce fundamental concepts like Newton’s Laws of Motion near the beginning of an introductory physics class, it is helpful to introduce ethical codes early in an exploration of ethical issues of physics. Doing so makes the important point that ethics is not only about what we as individuals believe is right and wrong; it is also about what the physics community believes is right and wrong. An essential element in analyzing ethical issues in a particular situation is considering the relevant community standards.
This chapter will explore ethical codes within the physics community as well as in closely related fields. Codes from scientific societies tend to focus on issues such as the responsible conduct of research, the treatment of colleagues and subordinates, and the interaction between scientists and society at large. Codes from professional societies in fields like engineering focus more on safety and how engineers relate to their employers.
Codes from professional societies are often connected to other codes and regulations. For instance, the federal government provides a definition of scientific misconduct, elements of which are reflected in various professional codes. This definition is incorporated, often nearly verbatim, into university research misconduct policies. State governments often use engineering codes to establish policies governing the licensing of engineers. Overlapping but nonidentical statements of what is right and what is wrong can, of course, lead to some confusion.
These professional codes are not the only ethical guidance that a physicist might consider when analyzing a situation from an ethical perspective. Other standards related to family, religion, and duty to country, for instance, may need to be considered when deciding on an action to take. With all of these standards and codes, it should come as no surprise that in many situations, conflict arises between the codes or even within a single code.
Conflicts are what make the study of professional ethics particularly challenging. They are also what some physicists may find particularly troubling. Physicists tend to look at the universe as being governed by well-defined, non-conflicting rules that provide unique answers. Even in the realm of quantum mechanics, where physicists acknowledge the probabilistic nature of the universe, we model this uncertainty in outcomes with well-defined wave functions. If two fundamental physics principles appear to conflict with each other, we assume that we need to correct our theories rather than learn how to live with the conflict. By contrast, it is not clear that we will ever be able to escape the conflicts that seem to naturally arise in the area of ethics. It follows then that ethical analysis of a situation may not provide a unique, correct course of action. On the other hand, ethical analysis will often help us separate the more desirable courses of action from the less desirable or undesirable ones.
In 2019, the American Physical Society Council approved new, comprehensive Guidelines on Ethics. These Guidelines draw together information from several previous position statements and introduce additional topics not previously addressed. The Guidelines have an introduction followed by topical sections, each with a statement of principle and recommendations for implementation. The topics covered are
A discussion of the APS Guidelines could easily occupy a full class hour. With the Guidelines assigned as reading prior to the meeting, a reasonable goal for a one-hour block of time would be discussion at a fairly general level. Ideally, this class hour would be followed up with later meetings during which issues are explored in more detail through the use of additional readings. These additional readings are addressed in subsequent chapters of this Manual. Where possible, and as time permits, it is helpful if the students can develop an understanding of why the standards exist. For instance, one standard describes the appropriate assignment of authorship on publications. Why is this standard important to the health of the physics community? Some of this discussion, however, may need to be postponed to a more in depth look at the issues. Finally, greater insight into the APS Guidelines can be obtained by comparing them to other codes within the physics community and in related fields of study. These other codes are discussed briefly in the sections that follow this one.
Note that some of these questions are not as relevant to more experienced researchers.
The American Institute of Physics is an overarching organization of societies in physics, astronomy, and related fields. Depending on areas of specialization of the students, other member societies of the AIP may be relevant.
The Acoustical Society of America has a carefully laid out Procedures for Addressing Grievances. The policy refers to unethical behavior without defining that term. A separate Meetings Harassment Policy covers several forms of harassment and discrimination as well as the procedure for reporting an incident.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine updated their Code of Ethics in 2018. This Code of Ethics is a lengthy document that outlines ten basic principles and then discusses their implications in the areas of general professional conduct, clinical ethics, research ethics, education ethics, and business/government ethics. The first two principles focus on patients, but many of the remaining principles are analogous to those found in other scientific codes of ethics. Other elements covered that are not typical in physics codes include research with human and animal subjects. The code concludes with a detailed description of the complaint procedure.
The American Association of Physics Teachers has an Event Participation Code of Conduct. The focus of this code is harassment, demeaning comments, and violent behavior at AAPT meetings.
The American Astronomical Society specifies reading their Code of Ethics as a condition of membership acceptance or renewal. After a general discussion of the role of the Code, the first set of concrete issues addressed are those associated with how members relate to others, including the issues of harassment and bullying. Then the focus shifts to research and publication issues. The code also details the procedure for handling complaints.
The American Crystallographic Association has a relatively brief Statement on Ethics focusing on publications. It is worth noting, however, that it has separate statements on the importance of diversity and on conduct at a meeting (“Code of Conduct Policy”). The meeting conduct policy covers respectful treatment of other attendees and of the surroundings.
The American Meteorological Society does not appear to have an over-arching code of conduct. However, they have issued numerous statements with ethical content, covering topics such as climate change, access to data, disseminating timely warnings to the public, and freedom of scientific expression.
The American Vacuum Society has brief statements on conduct at meetings and on diversity.
The Optical Society of America has an Anti-Harassment Policy and Code of Conduct that applies to participants in all of its events and activities. The policy defines bullying, discrimination, harassment and retaliation, and then describes OSA procedures for dealing with those situations.
The Society of Rheology has a Code of Conduct that applies to all in attendance at its meetings. It focuses on discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
These prompts are designed to be appropriate for students who have read the APS Guidelines and one or more of the codes in this section.
Examining codes of ethics from physics organizations based outside the United States can give some insight into the extent to which the APS Guidelines reflect an international consensus. This section will introduce codes from three other English-speaking countries.
The Australian Institute of Physics Code of Ethics is a relatively concise statement broken down into twelve points. While many of the points address what might be considered as typical academic issues, such as authorship, data management, and peer review, other points address issues that may be of more relevance to physicists in industry, such as advertising and seeking professional work.
The Canadian Association of Physicists has one of the briefest professional codes, containing just three general statements about acting in the interest of the profession, in the interest of the public, and with integrity. However, this association has a licensing procedure, and those holding a license are held to standards described in a more detailed code, The P. Phys. Code of Ethics. The seven bullet points, which represent standards in addition to those in the previous code, are very similar to the types of standards found in engineering codes (see next section). One of the requirements to receive a P. Phys. License is agreement to uphold the Code of Ethics.
The Institute of Physics, based in the United Kingdom and Ireland, has their Code of Professional Conduct incorporated into their Regulations. Section 10 begins with a preamble and then lists seven requirements, including promoting the health of the profession, avoiding unnecessary risk to health and safety arising from one’s work, and acting with integrity while conducting and reporting on research. Separate subsections deal with conflicts of interest, continuing education, not practicing outside one’s area of expertise, and reporting infractions of the Code. Section 11 then discusses disciplinary procedures. Consequences for violations of the Code include written warnings, suspension of membership, and expulsion from the IOP.
The American Chemical Society has a set of seven Ethical and Professional Guidelines. Their Guidelines for Academic Professional Chemists addresses standards for faculty, postdocs, and students, as well as for their departments and the institution (usually the university) as a whole. This appears to be one of the few codes that spells out what an institution needs to provide in order to facilitate ethical activity by the society’s members. The Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct focuses on chemists in industry. The Ethical Guidelines to Publication in Chemical Research reads like a detailed version of guidelines linked directly to journals, until the end of the document where guidelines for publishing outside of scientific literature are discussed. Most of what is discussed in the Professional Employment Guidelines could apply equally well to other professions, but the special attention paid to intellectual property and health and safety hints at the influence of the chemistry field on the document. The statement on Scientific Integrity in Public Policy addresses the ethical standards both for scientists involved in policy formation and for all government officials involved with policies that have a scientific component. The Volunteer/National Meeting Attendee Conduct Policy covers territory similar to the other meeting conduct policies discussed in the previous section. The Global Chemists’ Code of Ethics addresses in broad terms the issues related to the environment, research, publications, safety, and security of dual use chemicals.
The American Institute of Biological Sciences has a relatively concise Statement on Ethics, covering topics of research integrity common to many of the preceding codes. In addition, and not surprisingly, it addresses research on living organisms.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has eight canons in its Code of Ethics. As is common in engineering codes, the first canon deals with the safety, health, and welfare of society. Much of the remaining code looks at the relationship between engineers and their employers. Each canon begins with a general statement and then has several specific applications.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Code of Ethics covers many of the same issues as the ASCE code but is more concise.
Academic institutions receiving federal funding are required to have a research misconduct policy that includes procedures for responding to allegations of research misconduct. Researchers working in academia need to be aware of their institutional policy because primary enforcement takes place at the institutional level. While ideally this information is readily accessible on the institution’s website, in practice it is sometimes hard to find. A good exercise for students is to ask them to determine how they would go about reporting suspected research misconduct. If it takes your students a long time to locate this information, you may want to contact your institution’s Misconduct Policy Officer or Research Integrity Officer and ask that the information more accessible.
The procedures for investigating allegations of research misconduct may well come as a surprise to faculty and students alike if they have not yet had occasion to read through the institutional policy. In particular, if an allegation against a researcher has been made and it cannot be dismissed as frivolous, it is common practice to sequester all relevant evidence promptly. This sequestration may involve an unannounced visit to a lab during which the investigators take control of lab books, external hard drives, and computers. While being the subject of an allegation is rare, it is probably not going to be pleasant. It will be a bit easier to tolerate if one is already familiar with what the procedures are and why they are set up that way. Also, as students become familiar with the standard procedures for inquiries and investigations, they may gain a better appreciation for the importance of good recordkeeping.
It is not common for physicists to engage in research involving human subjects. For physicists who do so, once again, institutional policies will provide limits on such research. Education research may well be the most common situation where physicists interact with human subjects. Two issues can hamper physicists being in full compliance with the relevant regulatory requirements. First, physicists in academia who teach may start studying educational issues informally, with the initial goal of improving their own teaching. If the insight gained is sufficiently interesting, it would be natural to formalize and disseminate the results. Somewhere in this progression, the line that divides study for self-improvement from a research study will be crossed, and the faculty member may not be aware that human subjects research guidelines have become relevant. Second, there is terminology that some physicists may find confusing. Much of physics education research falls into the “Exempt” classification. At first glance, it might appear that this means human subjects research standards to not apply. However, it turns out that that the individual researcher is not allowed to decide if the proposed research is, in fact, Exempt. The standard procedure is to file an application with the Institutional Review Board and let them determine the appropriate classification. If the project is classified as Exempt, then close oversight of the project will not be required, unless changes to the research protocol are necessary. However, the researcher remains responsible for following institutional policies related to human subjects research. In order to comply with federal and institutional policies, it is essential to understand your own institution’s human subjects research policy before embarking on research involving human subjects, such as physics education research.
Read your institution’s policy on research with human subjects and discuss any aspects that you had not anticipated finding there.
The author is grateful for the time and effort of the anonymous reviewers of this work and for their numerous helpful suggestions.
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