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Sherry's Secret



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Notes Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 2, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1998
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Rights The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) grants permission to use these case and commentary material with the citation indicated above.
Year 2006
Publisher provided Keywords acknowledgment Authorship Data falsification Publication
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
Language English
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  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 13 years ago

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag

    Sherry confronts a number of dilemmas in this case study. She faces the choice of doing what she thinks is right from her viewpoint and that of her co-workers. She also makes a few ethically questionable moves. This case study is designed to present a person to whom most people can relate, someone who sometimes thinks of herself first, not an unrealistically virtuous person. I want to introduce some so-called gray areas for discussion using a few issues that have come up in my own graduate career as well as some that I considered thought-provoking.

    At the end of each section, conclusions can be drawn that will end the story, and I intended the reader to be able to do this, as indicated by the possible conclusion paragraph after the first set of questions. As the story continues, additional ethical issues arise. When the story ends, there is a wide avenue for discussion of what Sherry did and what she should or should not have done. The reader has a broad spectrum of issues for an animated class discussion.

    Questions 1-3

    The question here is whether Norman has been dishonest in his dealings with Sherry's work. Since Norman is also listed as an author, he should be able to revise work if he wishes. But did he really fabricate the data? Could he have been revising her work? It is a possibility that he did the experiment himself and got the correct conclusions. What Sherry should have done is to ask him in the beginning about the manuscript, or ask to help edit it.

    If Sherry decides that Norman is falsifying data, should she tell anyone? The truth is that she probably would be blacklisted in her field, or at least make some serious enemies. She could be saying good-bye to any chance for success. Is it really worth all that?

    All of these issues aside, Sherry should never have looked at papers on Norman's desk. Her action is a clear invasion of privacy.

    Questions 4-5

    Part 2 attempts to display a gray area for discussion. It brings up the question of responsibility or accountability for a publication. Sherry's decision not to "blow the whistle" this time is solely based on her self-interest, not on any sense of loyalty to anyone else in the lab. Is this decision any more or less justifiable than her earlier decisions, which took into account the fate of her co-workers?

    Questions 6-8

    In Part 3, I want the reader to think of what Sherry should do after discovering that others have shared her experience with Norman. Obviously, none of them have reported Norman, even though they knew what he was doing, and had discussed his actions among themselves. Should Sherry now sacrifice her career to prevent his jeopardizing the newer students? Her predecessors never warned her. Should she too turn a blind eye? After all, she is about to leave, and no one would ever know what happened.

    Should Sherry also be accused of misconduct? She knew of an unethical situation (or one she thought was unethical) and did nothing about it. My point here is for the discussion participants to find out their own institutions' policy on reporting unethical behavior. At some institutions, she would be held accountable; at others, not. Most institutions have no set policy for ownership of data and reporting misconduct because it is impossible to know the minute details and circumstances of every case. Misconduct is handled on a case-by-case basis, although each institution may have a highly structured procedure for handling such cases.

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    • Beabout, G. R., and Wenneman, D. J. Applied Professional Ethics: A Developmental Approach for Use with Case Studies. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1994. National Academy of Sciences,

    • National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine. Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process, Volume 1. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994.

    • Sigma Xi., Honor in Science. Research Triangle Park, N.C.: The Scientific Research Society, Inc., 1994, pp. 29-32.

  • Deborah G. Johnson

    Posted 13 years ago

    Deborah G. Johnson

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

    Professor Norman's behavior is bad science and bad mentoring for a number of reasons. I will separate the steps in his behavior and try to explain why his actions are wrong.

    The first act we can distinguish is the act of sending off a paper based on a student's work without informing the student or obtaining her agreement. Even if Sherry had completed the experiments, it would be a breach of trust for Norman to submit her paper without telling her what he is about to do. Just as he should not let any papers go out under his own name unless he has reviewed them, the student, Sherry, entitled to review her papers. Sherry is denied the opportunity to act responsibly with respect to her own work. Norman is at fault both for denying her this opportunity and for failing as a mentor to instill in Sherry a sense of responsibility for her work.

    Norman's second improper act is to fabricate data. Fabrication of data is perhaps the most serious breach of research ethics. The foundations of science rest on the accuracy of research results and reporting. Science is a collective activity in which scientists build on one another's work; the whole enterprise depends heavily on the reliability and trustworthiness of each scientist's work. Imagine what would happen to science if scientists could never be certain of the truth of results reported in scientific journals!

    Still, let us give Dr. Norman the benefit of the doubt We might suppose that Norman is so knowledgeable in his field that he could accurately predict the results of Sherry's experiments before they are completed. Even if that were true, it still seems that Norman is taking a short cut and that he does not recognize the whole point of doing science. The point is to verify predictions and thereby move them from hypotheses to evidence. For Norman to bypass this step in doing science is not only to do bad science, it is, in an important sense, to cease to do science at all.

    By his initial actions (submitting the paper without telling the student and fabricating data), Norman traps the student in a no-win situation. Whatever Sherry does after she discovers what he has done, she jeopardizes her career. If she makes waves about what Norman has done, she might be considered a whistle-blower or trouble-maker. Even if she isn't perceived as a trouble-maker, she jeopardizes her relationship with Norman, who has a good deal of power over her career. On the other hand, if she does nothing, she runs the risk of the published article being a false representation of her research; that is, she runs the risk of becoming a co-conspirator in fabrication.

    Given that Norman has trapped her in a no-win situation, I sympathize with Sherry's decision to wait until the results of her experiments are in. Of course, the risk remains that if the results do not confirm what the professor fabricated, she will be in deeper trouble. She will have knowingly let his fabrication go, and she will have to take more disruptive action to correct his wrong.

    Once Sherry completes her research and finds that her results conform to Norman's fabrication, some of the pressure is relieved. At least her published results will not be false. Still, the process has been bad and it was just a matter of luck that she isn't going to publish false results. Sherry ought to do something. As the case goes, she discovers that Norman has done the same sort of thing with other students. However, that seems irrelevant since the one incident is enough to justify action.

    What should Sherry do? It might be a good idea for Sherry to wait until she has defended and moved to her post-doc. Then she should contact an appropriate person back at the institution where she worked with Norman. He will still be in a position to damage her career, but she can attempt to have her concerns addressed while remaining anonymous.

    I should add here that one option that Sherry had throughout the case was to go to someone with authority, report her concerns, get advice, and try to remain anonymous. I was reluctant to propose this solution because it is often difficult to remain anonymous, and often there is no clearly appropriate person to report to. Nevertheless, it is generally a good idea to keep someone informed as to your actions, even if you ask them not to act.

    From: Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries - Volume 2, 1998 

    edited by Brian Schrag

Cite this page: "Sherry's Secret" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2/16/2006 OEC Accessed: Thursday, February 21, 2019 <>