Responsible Conduct of Research

David Mogk, Montana State University

Much of the ethics training in the STEM disciplines is focused on the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR). This training is now a requirement for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows supported by research grants from the National Science Foundation. The following is a collection of resources that support training in RCR.

General Resources that Inform Responsible Conduct of Research

  • MUST READ: Fostering Integrity in Research, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. See the overview of National Academies Releases Sweeping Review of Research Misconduct and Detrimental Practices from the American Institute of Physics.
  • Singapore Statement on Research Integrity--
    "The principles and responsibilities set out in the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity represent the first international effort to encourage the development of unified policies, guidelines and codes of conduct, with the long-range goal of fostering greater integrity in research worldwide. The Statement is the product of the collective effort and insights of the 340 individuals from 51 countries who participated in the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity. These included researchers, funders, representatives of research institutions (universities and research institutes) and research publishers. The Statement was developed by a small drafting committee (listed below); discussed and commented upon before, during and after the 2nd World Conference; and then finalized for release and global use on 22 September 2010."
  • USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Handbook -- July 2013 and updated March 8, 2016. "USDA is committed to a culture of scientific integrity.. Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses and their use in policy making from political interference or inappropriate influcuence. Scientific and technical findings should not be suppressed or altered for political purposes."
  • Integrity of Scientific and Scholarly Activities--United States Department of the Interior

Training in Responsible Conduct of Research

Responsible Conduct of Research Key Topics That Need to be Addressed

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened. --Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1871, Volume 2, Chapter XXI, p. 385.
  • Responsible Conduct of Research modules from Ethics Core--a series of interactive tutorials available at no cost to groups affiliated with educational or other non-profit institutions.

The Treatment of Data and Data Management

  • American Library Association (ALA) and Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA)-- The Code of Ethics in the Field of Library and Information Science.
    • Provide highly organized services and resources, unbiased replies to requests, and fair access.
    • Ensure fair treatment to everyone, including library users and colleagues.
    • Develop a sense of responsibility toward individuals and society.
    • Maintain professional excellence, accuracy, integrity and cooperation while offering transparency.
    • Find an appropriate balance between professional and personal convictions.
    • Respect intellectual property rights and refrain from censoring library resources.
    • Protect intellectual freedom and property as well as the right to confidentiality and privacy.
    • Do not pursue private interests to the detriment of the institution.
    • Data provide the factual basis for scientific work. The integrity of research depends on integrity in all aspects of data management, including the collection, use, and sharing of data.
    • Integrity of the data is a shared responsibility. All researchers have an interest in, and responsibility for, protecting the integrity of the research record.
    • Quality of data collection depends on thoughtful planning. Adequate preparation for data collection helps to ensure that resources are not wasted and that significant results can be obtained.
    • Selection and analysis of data should be specified. If the research is to be presented in a useful and significant way, critical decisions about selection and analysis must be made before the research commences, when possible.
    • Data should be shared. An open data policy reflects positively on those who share and benefits science by increasing the likelihood for new insights, collaboration, and reciprocal sharing.
    • Ethical Challenges in a Digital World. Who controls information and how it is used (for good or bad)? Is there an expectation of making information universally accessible? Who has right to use information and under what circumstances? How to cite or indicate credit for information that's "in the ether"? Who can use the information, and under what circumstances?

Mistakes and Negligence

  • On Being A Scientist --A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research 3rd Ed., 2009, National Academy Press (pages 12-14)

Research Misconduct and Fraud

Responding to Suspected Violations of Professional Standards, Whistle Blowing

Laboratory Safety in Research

Sharing Research Results

  • On Being A Scientist--A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research 3rd Ed., 2009, National Academy Press (pages 29-34)
  • Collaboration--see the case study video from Ethics Core. Part of a series of videos on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) produced by the Office of Research, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Authorship and Allocation of Credit

Peer Review



  • Collaboration--Resources for Research Ethics Education, UC San Diego

Conflicts of Interest

Intellectual Property

  • On Being A Scientist--A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research 3rd Ed., 2009, National Academy Press (pages 39-42)

Competing Interests, Commitments and Values

  • On Being A Scientist --A Guide to Responsible Conduct of Research 3rd Ed., 2009, National Academy Press (pages 43-47)

Responsibilities of Editors

Reproducible Science

Intrinsic Ethics

  • Intrinsic Ethics Regarding integrated assessment models for climate management -- Schienke, EW, Baum, SD, Tuana, N., Davis KJ, and Keller, K., Sci Eng Ethics. 2011 Sep;17(3):503-23. doi: 10.1007/s11948-010-9209-3. Epub 2010 Jun 8.
    In this essay we develop and argue for the adoption of a more comprehensive model of research ethics than is included within current conceptions of responsible conduct of research (RCR). We argue that our model, which we label the ethical dimensions of scientific research (EDSR), is a more comprehensive approach to encouraging ethically responsible scientific research compared to the currently typically adopted approach in RCR training. This essay focuses on developing a pedagogical approach that enables scientists to better understand and appreciate one important component of this model, what we call intrinsic ethics. Intrinsic ethical issues arise when values and ethical assumptions are embedded within scientific findings and analytical methods. Through a close examination of a case study and its application in teaching, namely, evaluation of climate change integrated assessment models, this paper develops a method and case for including intrinsic ethics within research ethics training to provide scientists with a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the critical role of values and ethical choices in the production of research outcomes.

Political Influence on the Conduct of Science

  • USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Handbook -- July 2013 and updated March 8, 2016. "USDA is committed to a culture of scientific integrity.. Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses and their use in policy making from political interference or inappropriate influcuence. Scientific and technical findings should not be suppressed or altered for political purposes."
  • A recent troubling incident: Trump transition team for Energy Department seeks names of employees involved in climate meetings--article by Steven Mufson and Juliet Eliperin, published December 9, 2016 in the Washington Post.
  • Communication Chill--Andrew Kreighbaum, from Inside Higher Education, posted January 25, 2017; "As EPA freezes grants, agencies issue internal guidance to employees on outside communications, stirring fears of political interference in science."
  • Freedom to Bully,How Laws Intended to Free Information are Used to Harass Researchers--Michael Halpern, February 2015, Union of Concerned Scientists, Center for Science and Democracy. "Open records laws are increasingly being used as a weapon against researchers whose work threatens private interests"
  • New Energy Dept. guidelines: Changing culture or political ploy?--Ellen Powell, January 12, 2017, Christian Science Monitor; "Scientists can now speak freely to the media and publish in scientific journals. The guidelines may set the course for the upcoming confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary – and the department's next four years." Access the U.S. Dept. of Energy Scientific Integrity Policy "This document sets forth a policy intended to 1) ensure a culture of scientific integrity; (2) strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of the Federal Government and Federal Government-sponsored research; (3) facilitate the free flow of scientific and technical information consistent with privacy and classification standards and applicable laws, regulations, and DOE Orders and Policies; and (4) establish principles for conveying scientific and technological information to the public."
  • Following Reports of Interference, GAO to Study Scientific Integrity at Federal Agencies--from American Institute of Physics, posted October 27, 2017. "The Government Accountability Office has agreed to evaluate the state of scientific integrity at federal agencies at the request of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who says he is concerned about reports of political interference in scientific work."
  • Perspectives of Scientists Who Become Targets: Katharine Hayhoe--Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, posted August 10, 2017.

Responsible Conduct of Education Research: Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER)

A two-year study by the NRC (2012) of Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER): Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering explored 1) the current status of DBER, 2) evidence-based contributions of DBER to STEM education and 3) future directions for collaborative discipline-based education research.There are three principle components of DBER:

  • The contours of DBER are emergent from the parent disciplines, reflecting deep disciplinary knowledge, skills, and ways of knowing that inform disciplinary research in a given field;
  • DBER investigates teaching and learning in a given discipline, which reflects the questions asked, approaches to problem solving, and representations to explain phenomena that are intrinsic to a given discipline; and
  • DBER is informed by complementary research on human learning and cognition.

Researchers in the geosciences are increasingly contributing to geoscience education research (see: overview of Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences. See an overview of Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences in their participation in DBER.

Researchers who are engaged in any research involving human subjects should be fully aware of the ethical guidelines that apply to this research. Be sure to check with your Institutional Review Board (IRB) to make sure you are in compliance with training and reporting requirements to conduct your research.

The Belmont Report

This report is the source of Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. These include:

Respect for Persons

"Respect for persons incorporates at least two ethical convictions: first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection. The principle of respect for persons thus divides into two separate moral requirements: the requirement to acknowledge autonomy and the requirement to protect those with diminished autonomy." This states that the person must be capable of making an informed decision on whether or not to participate in a human subjects research project.

Key considerations: autonomy (ability to freely choose to participate), mental capacity, voluntariness, informed consent

  • "Informed consent will be sought from each prospective subject or the subject's legally authorized representative,
  • "Informed consent will be appropriately documented,
  • "When appropriate, there are adequate provisions to protect the privacy of subjects and to maintain the confidentiality of data."
  • "When some or all of the subjects are likely to be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence, such as children, prisoners, pregnant women, mentally disabled persons, or economically or educationally disadvantaged persons, additional safeguards have been included in the study to protect the rights and welfare of these subjects."


"Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being." Such treatment falls under the principle of beneficence. The term "beneficence" is often understood to cover acts of kindness or charity that go beyond strict obligation. In this document, beneficence is understood in a stronger sense, as an obligation. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: 1) Do not harm, and 2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.

  • "Risks to subjects are minimized: (i) By using procedures which are consistent with sound research design and which do not unnecessarily expose subjects to risk, and (ii) whenever appropriate, by using procedures already being performed on the subjects for diagnostic or treatment purposes."
  • "Risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, if any, to subjects, and the importance of the knowledge that may reasonably be expected to result. In evaluating risks and benefits, the IRB should consider only those risks and benefits that may result from the research (as distinguished from risks and benefits of therapies subjects would receive even if not participating in the research). The IRB should not consider possible long-range effects of applying knowledge gained in the research (for example, the possible effects of the research on public policy) as among those research risks that fall within the purview of its responsibility."
  • "When appropriate, the research plan makes adequate provision for monitoring the data collected to ensure the safety of subjects."
  • "When appropriate, there are adequate provisions to protect the privacy of subjects and to maintain the confidentiality of data."


"Who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens? This is a question of justice, in the sense of "fairness in distribution" or "what is deserved." An injustice occurs when some benefit to which a person is entitled is denied without good reason or when some burden is imposed unduly. Another way of considering the principle of justice is that equals ought to be treated equally. However, this statement requires explication. Who is equal and who is unequal? What considerations justify departure from equal distribution? Almost all commentators allow that distinctions based on experience, age, deprivation, competence, merit and position do sometimes constitute criteria justifying differential treatment for certain purposes. It is necessary, then, to explain in what aspects people should be treated equally. There are several widely accepted formulations of just ways to distribute burdens and benefits. Each formulation mentions some relevant property on the basis for which burdens and benefits should be distributed. These formulations are:

  1. To each person an equal share.
  2. To each person according to individual need.
  3. To each person according to individual effort.
  4. To each person according to societal contribution.
  5. And to each person according to merit.

"Selection of subjects is equitable. In making this assessment the IRB should take into account the purposes of the research and the setting in which the research will be conducted and should be particularly cognizant of the special problems of research involving vulnerable populations, such as children, prisoners, pregnant women, mentally disabled persons, or economically or educationally disadvantaged persons."

Are There, or Should There Be, Limits to Geoscience Research?

The medical professions decided long ago that there must be limits to medical research on human subjects, and researchers must adhere to strict guidelines (see the Belmont Forum Report; the topic of bio- and medical ethics is beyond the scope of this project, but there are important lessons learned from related disciplines). Given that Earth exhibits complex system behavior, do geoscientists have permissions (explicit or tacit), authority, or consent to do unbridled research, particularly in areas that may produce unforeseen consequences (e.g. geoengineering to mitigate climate change; attempts to control earthquakes)? On a local scale, is it appropriate and permissable for geoscientists to sample and analyze for environmental hazards in communities? What are the consequences to the people living in the potentially impacted areas?

What you don't know may indeed hurt you, but in some cases the remedy may be more harmful than the original situation. There are no clear answers here, but this is something to think about. As Hamm says to Clov in Samuel Beckett's End Game: "I love the old questions. (with fervor) Ah the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them." Or from Adlai Stevenson: "Nature is neutral. Man has wrested from nature the power to make the world a desert or make the deserts bloom. There is no evil in the atom; only in men's souls." Who decides when or if geoscience research goes "out of bounds"? Do we need an equivalent IRB for the geosciences equivalent to that required of human or animal subjects? Are there instances where knowing the results of research could actually cause harm?

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