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
The primary focus of this chapter is peer review in the context of academic journals. However, many of the principles apply to other forms of peer review, including those related to grant proposals and career advancement.
The APS Guidelines on Ethics provides a good structure for a discussion of peer review. The ethical principle describes the role of peer review: “Peer review provides advice concerning the merit of research proposals, the publication of research results, and career advancement of colleagues. It is an essential component of the scientific process.” Peer review also plays a role in the development of some textbooks.
An article by Baldwin provides a history of peer review, with a focus on journals and grant proposals. The Letters to the Editor that follow up on the article add different perspectives to a few of Baldwin’s points. For a more in-depth look at the nineteenth century origins of the publication system, see this book review (and, of course, the accompanying book, if interested).
From the APS Guidelines on Ethics,1 “Peer review can serve its intended function only if the members of the scientific community are prepared to provide thorough, fair, and objective evaluations based on requisite expertise.”
In the academic world as well as in some national labs and industry settings, career advancement can be heavily influenced by one’s ability to attract research funding. One’s ability to publish papers can also be a factor in career advancement, either directly or indirectly (such as through its influence on grant applications). Decisions made regarding career advancement, grant applications, and acceptance of manuscripts for publication all commonly involve peer review. To treat members of the physics community fairly requires a peer review system that operates with fairness.
Physical Review Letters has a web page that provides information to its referees. In particular the link to PRL Editorial Policies and Practices provides a fairly detailed overview of the manuscript review process and of expectations for referees. Also worth reading is the Guidelines for Referees, which is briefer and focuses on how a report is put together. For an alternate introduction to how a careful referee report is constructed, see the 1995 Letter to the Editor in Physics Today by Rothman, who wrote from his experience as former editor of the Journal of Applied Physics.
Most physics journals have a single blind system for peer review, meaning the reviewers know the names of the authors but the authors do not know the names of the reviewers. The reports written by the reviewers are also considered non-public documents, being passed back to the authors but not released to a wider audience. For an argument in support of listing the names of the reviewers and releasing their reports, see this Letter to the Editor.
In the life sciences, more information on the issue of peer review is available, some of it from surveys and some of it from simple experiments to test for reviewer bias. Resnik summarizes these in a 2011 article.
From the APS Guidelines on Ethics,1 “Although peer review can be difficult and time consuming, scientists have an obligation to participate in the process.”
Aside from concise statements such as the one above, not much has been written on the obligation of scientists to participate in the peer review process. To highlight the importance of participation, the American Physical Society now recognizes outstanding referees of submissions to its journals.
From the APS Guidelines on Ethics,1 “All steps in the peer review process should be executed as expeditiously as possible by reviewers, editors, and authors.”
Resnik’s paper8, mentioned in the previous section, includes a little bit of survey information on the issue of intentional delay by referees. Since the study had limitations (including focusing on the life sciences), one can at best conclude that such delays probably take place on occasion in physics, but it is not clear how often they happen.
Deliberate delays can give referees or their colleagues a competitive advantage in getting their results published first. Regardless of whether or not the delay was intentional, there can be negative consequences for the authors of the submission, including having less evidence to put forth in an application for funding or in an application for career advancement.
From the APS Guidelines on Ethics,1 “Privileged information or ideas that are obtained through peer review by reviewers and editors must be kept confidential and not used for competitive gain.”
A good practical introduction to rules that arise related to both confidentiality and conflict of interest can be found in the National Science Foundation document geared towards grant application reviewers. Physical Review Letters has a succinct statement on confidentiality in the Guidelines for Referees section of its Information for Referees.
From the APS Guidelines on Ethics,1 “Reviewers should disclose conflicts of interest resulting from direct competitive, collaborative, or other relationships with any of the authors, candidates, or proposers, and avoid cases in which such conflicts preclude an objective evaluation (see Conflicts of Interest and Commitment in Section IV).”
Conflicts of interest can result not only in bias in peer review, but also in the appearance of bias, which would then undermine confidence in the peer review system. In many contexts, such as when reviewing a journal submission or a grant application, the primary responsibility of the peer reviewer is to disclose possible conflicts of interest to the person or group who solicited the review. It is then the duty of the journal or granting agency representative to make the final decision on whether or not the conflict is significant enough that the review might be compromised. It is worth pointing out to students, however, that it is often difficult to avoid all conflicts of interest in a peer review. For instance, in a highly specialized field, there may be a limited number of peer reviewers with appropriate expertise, and they may be in direct competition for resources. While a granting agency would not allow someone who has a grant application to provide a peer review on another grant application in that same funding cycle and applicant pool, a reviewer without an application in that pool might be in competition in the broader sense with another applicant.
Resnik and Elmore have a short article on conflict of interest involving journal peer reviewers. While the statistics reported are largely drawn from the medical field, almost all of the issues raised are relevant to physics, and the article provides a nice, concise summary of those issues.
Universities receiving federal funding are required to have conflict of interest policies related to federally funded research. A simple exercise for students would be to look up the policy at their own university. These policies tend to focus on financial conflicts, unlike the broader policies that also treat non-financial conflicts related to manuscript reviews11 and grant reviews10.
In this context, career advancement decisions refer to decisions physicists make or provide input on regarding the careers of other physicists, including decisions to hire, promote, and, in the case of academic positions, grant tenure. One common challenge in these decisions is the limited time and information. A job applicant, for instance, supplies a resume or CV and supporting materials. There may be dozens of application packets to review in a task that is likely to be an add-on to the reviewer’s usual workload. The volume of applications that need to be reviewed can lead to a tendency to rely on “gut reactions,” which in turn opens the door to inappropriate bias. The APS Guidelines on Ethics provides a good starting point to discussing these issues in Section III Treatment of Colleagues and Subordinates: Explicit, Systemic, and Implicit Bias.1 In addition, most large institutions have a human resources department that provides guidance on many career advancement decisions. While the guiding procedures may at times seem overly constraining, they are designed to increase the objectivity of those with decision-making responsibilities. Students may be able to locate materials on their university’s human resources web page that pertain to career advancement decision-making.
Textbooks often undergo various forms of peer review. A publisher that is interested in a textbook proposal may send that proposal out for feedback from physicists (usually in academia) on the need for and content of the proposed book. A textbook that is under contract with a publisher may have some or all of its chapters reviewed by other physicists. Reviews requested by publishers generally involve some form of compensation. Sometimes they are open, not blind, in that the authors know who wrote each review. Finally, unlike reviewers of journal submissions, a textbook reviewer typically earns an acknowledgment in the book.
Another form of prepublication peer review that sometimes takes place is an author asking a colleague to look over some or all of a manuscript as a favor. These reviews are obviously open and usually result in an acknowledgment in the final product.
While the preceding forms of review are mostly hidden from public view (outside of the acknowledgments), book reviews can be considered a form of public, open peer review. Physics Today has at least two book reviews in almost every issue. Any of these could be easily accessed for a short reading assignment.
Do you think that the open nature of book reviews in Physics Today makes them less reliable since the authors may not write with complete candor?
The author is grateful for the time and effort of the anonymous reviewers of this work, and for their numerous helpful suggestions.
 American Physical Society Guidelines on Ethics (19.1) (2019). https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/guidlinesethics.cfm
 Melinda Baldwin, “In referees we trust?,” Physics Today 70 (2) 44-49 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3463
 Yves Gingras et al., “Peer review as conflict,” Physics Today 70 (10) 16-18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3712, https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3713, https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3714, https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3715
 Matthew Wale, Writing the record of scientific knowledge,” Physics Today 72 (3) 59 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.4167
 Physical Review Letters, “Information for Referees’” https://journals.aps.org/prl/referees (accessed October 8, 2019).
 Steven J. Rothman, “A Review of Peer Review,” Physics Today 48 (9) 124-125 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1063/1.2808189
 Tai-Yin Huang, “Peering into peer review,” Physics Today 61 (12) 14 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1063/1.3047647
 David Resnik, “A Troubled Tradition,” American Scientist 99 (1) 24ff (2011). DOI: 10.1511/2011.88.24
 American Physical Society, “Outstanding Referees Program,” https://journals.aps.org/OutstandingReferees (accessed October 8, 2019).
 National Science Foundation, “Conflict-of-Interest and Confidentiality Statement for NSF Panelists,” (NSF Form 1230P, 10/2017) https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/forms/nsf1230p.pdf (accessed October 9, 2019).
 Physical Review Letters, “Guidelines for Referees,” https://journals.aps.org/prl/referees/guidelines-for-referees (accessed October 9, 2019).
 David B. Resnik and Susan A. Elmore, “Conflict of Interest in Journal Peer Review,” Toxicology Pathology 46 (2) 112-114 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1177/0192623318754792