TEACHING PROFESSIONAL ETHICS IN AGRICULTURE CURRICULA

Cleora J. D'Arcy
and
Wayne Pedersen


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When you receive your Ph.D. in an agricultural discipline, many assumptions come along with the diploma. It is assumed that you are capable of designing and carrying forward a research program, and that you have the management and interpersonal skills requisite for this task. It is assumed that you have the capability to express yourself, both verbally and in writing, and that you can do so appropriately to a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes. It is assumed that you understand and can work within the framework of the scientific community and that you know how to be a part of this network. Perhaps most importantly, it is assumed that you know the "right" or "correct" or "ethical" way to do all of these things, and many more.

However, if any of you were to examine the current Ph.D. curricula in a variety of agricultural fields, there is very little that would convince you that we are adequately preparing our graduate students to fulfill these assumptions. Some, perhaps many, would argue that this preparation does not take place within the formal curriculum, but rather as a result of one-on-one interactions, particularly between senior scientist and student. In "the best of all possible worlds" this may be true. However, we both believe that we had Ph.D. advisors who were good "mentors", but we both felt unprepared in many of the areas mentioned above. Some may respond that "experience is the best teacher". Again, this may be true in some situations, but in others people get hurt when the learning occurs too late.

We do not portend that advanced studies in agriculture are vastly different from those in other disciplines. We expect that much of what we say here applies to other advanced degree programs. Agriculture is simply our area of expertise, and the framework within which we have been able to try to address what we see as a critical lack in students' preparation for their careers (D'Arcy, 1995). We hope that some of what we have done can be adapted for use in other disciplines, at our own and other institutions.

What we have done is to create a course which is designed to familiarize students with the professional and ethical aspects of their future careers. The course, now titled "Professionalism and Ethics in Science", has been taught since 1982, first under the auspices of the Department of Plant Pathology and this fall for the first time under the joint auspices of the Department of Crop Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. It will be available to about 150 graduate students in the "green" disciplines of our college: agronomy, entomology, forestry, horticulture, plant pathology, and soils. The course has two central goals. First, we provide graduate students with practical information about various aspects of their professional careers. Second, we motivate students to think about ethics through discussion of situations ("case studies", "scenarios") which have ethical dimensions. Although here we will discuss these two goals separately, in actuality we deal with both of them in each class session.

There are many aspects of a scientist's job that sometimes are not experienced and usually are not adequately explored by many graduate students. Examples include: design and analysis of experiments, scientific communication and authorship, review and editorial processes, funding of research, conflicts of interest, the job search and interview process, teaching of science, and advising and mentoring others. The course conveys factual, practical information about each of these topics. As an example, let's look at authorship. Why is authorship important to a scientist? As in all academic and many intellectual pursuits, authorship can be viewed as the coin of the realm. What you have authored in the past 12 months, 5 years or 3 decades will most likely lead to a raise, a promotion or an award, that is, concrete remuneration that you can use to send your children to college or to retire in comfort. In science, the most valuable coin is a peer-reviewed article. While books, monographs, proceedings and other forms of publication rank highly in other areas, in science nothing has the status of a peer reviewed article. This is why the topic of what constitutes authorship in science is a critical element of our profession.

Assignment of authorship may be viewed as one, rather small, piece of the construction of a scientific paper. Scientific writing is itself a codified form of writing, with its own set of rules and conventions. Most of you probably remember the standard form of introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion from your high school or college science laboratory reports. The vast majority of original scientific manuscripts follow this same progression. If you examine some of the numerous "how-to" books about scientific writing, they will all discuss the form and content of these sections of a scientific paper. In contrast, however, you will find that while some of these books include discussions of authorship (e.g. Day, 1983; O'Connor, 1991), others do not (e.g. Booth, 1993; McMillan, 1988). Perhaps this is because scientists prefer to approach scientific writing as they approach science - rationally and objectively. They would rather not deal with aspects that are not cut and dried, require discussion, and can cause discord - like authorship.

There are two basic questions about authorship. First, who should be included as an author on a paper? Second, in what order should the names of the authors appear? There are no "rules" that govern how to answer either of these questions, although many present- day U.S. scientists follow certain conventions. When a scientific paper appears in print, most scientists assume that each author made a significant contribution to the science included. This contribution could be in terms of generation of ideas, design and execution of experiments, and/or analysis and interpretation of results. Scientists further assume that each author is cognizant of the material presented in the paper, and supports the conclusions drawn. When a scientific paper appears in print, most scientists also make certain assumptions about why the authors are listed in a particular order. We usually assume that the first, or senior, author did a significant portion of the work in the paper, and wrote it up for publication. We often assume that the last author is the "laboratory leader", and provided ideas and funding for the project. Those authors sandwiched in between contributed in lesser ways, either in terms of the hands-on work or the development of ideas. Of course, our assumptions are not always valid, perhaps particularly for journals published in other parts of the world where the scientific "culture" has different norms. Some authorships are "honorary" - awarded even though the individual did not make a significant contribution to the work. Other times, authors may be listed alphabetically, a practice perhaps more commonly encountered in the social sciences than in the "hard" sciences. Scientists who work together in a group over a considerable period of time may have arranged a rotation of the senior author slot among themselves. In our course, we introduce these and other practices to the students, and challenge their assumptions of how and why authorship is given and ordered. As a class, we can try to work towards a consensus definition of authorship, perhaps resembling Robert A. Day's, "an author... takes intellectual responsibility for the results being published" (Day, 1983) or that an "author has made a significant intellectual contribution to the paper" (Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research, 1992). We then can discuss what "intellectual responsibility" and "intellectual contribution" mean in practice.

It is obvious that as we discuss the conventions surrounding scientific authorship, many questions that have ethical implications will arise. How does one decide whether an individual has earned authorship on a scientific paper, or whether a sentence in the acknowledgments is more appropriate? How does one decide if the laboratory leader should be included on the paper? Is it necessary to include the individual who provided monetary support, or laboratory equipment, or greenhouse bench space? How does one decide which author should be listed first, last and in between? What does one do if a senior colleague demands to be included as an author on a paper? These are issues on which not all scientists agree. These are issues with ethical dimensions that need to be considered and discussed by future professional scientists. One of the best ways we have found to foster discussion of these questions and others like them is through the use of "case studies" or "scenarios".

Case studies or scenarios describe a hypothetical situation in which characters are faced with a decision or dilemma. The description can be a paragraph (e.g. Penslar, 1995) or pages in length (e.g. Bebeau et al., 1995). Whatever the length, however, the situation cannot be described completely. While at first this may seem like a weakness it is, in practice, a strength of scenarios as a teaching tool. Consider, for example, a discussion of whether or not to include an undergraduate hourly assistant as an author on a paper. When a student discussant states, "The scenario doesn't specify how much undergraduate X actually contributed to Dr. Y's project.", the instructor is given an opening to delve into the relative importance of different kinds of contributions by asking "What if...". What if undergraduate X has spent 300 hours running controlled temperature trials of seed germination? What if undergraduate X accidentally found that when the trials were run at 20C rather than 18C (because she mis-set the controls one day), the results were significantly different? What if undergraduate X found a paper during a library search that suggested that temperature could affect the results of the experiments? What if undergraduate X read the paper she had been sent to photocopy and suggested to Professor Y that they try different temperature settings? The scenario can be endlessly modified and the consequences of these modifications on the decision of whether or not to include the undergraduate as an author on the resulting manuscript can be discussed.

What do the graduate students take away from a class session on authorship? First, they learn some facts about what authorship on a scientific paper means, and some of the ways in which it has been and is awarded and ordered. Second, they begin to formulate their own criteria for authorship. Until a young professional has developed a set of criteria to use for awarding and ordering authorship, every project and resulting manuscript will be a trial. Finally, and most importantly, graduate students learn when to discuss authorship on a project - at its inception and throughout its progress, rather than while or even after the manuscript is written. This is one of the most important lessons that graduate students must learn about many aspects of the scientific endeavor. It is a group project. These students are standing on the shoulders of their scientific predecessors and will support their scientific successors. Meanwhile, they are a part of a scientific community and they must learn to communicate with other members of that community - about authorship and about many other issues we that we discuss in this course.

For each scenario, the students are given the opportunity for open, but guided, discussion. We encourage them to examine the scenario in the following ways (Bebeau et al., 1995), although not necessarily in this order. Who are the affected parties in the scenario? Frequently, the list of affected parties extends far beyond the characters described in the paragraph or page. What are the rights and obligations of each of these parties? It is natural for us to be able to see most easily the rights and/or obligations of some parties (i.e. those most like ourselves), and to have a harder time seeing the rights and responsibilities of others (i.e. those in positions we have never held). What are the possible outcomes of the scenario to each party? This is often the most difficult part of discussing a scenario. The inclination of each participant is to "solve" the dilemma. This is quite natural, given that scientists spend most of their professional lives looking for answers to questions or solutions to problems. As a discussion leader it is important to guide students to discuss the issues, rather than to solve the problem. Finally, how can a particular outcome be implemented? It does little good to decide upon a course of action if you are unable to carry it out. The goals of this process are to teach the students how to analyze a situation that has ethical dimensions, and to teach them that most such situations have more than one possible solution.

Discussion of scenarios can easily become roundabout and nonproductive, unless the instructors formulate clear goals for the session. We have found it very useful to have two faculty discussion leaders for each group of graduate students in our course. First, two individuals are likely to have a variety of experiences to bring to the group discussion. Second, two individuals are likely to disagree at times. This disagreement shows the students that in searching for the "answers" to scenarios, there are usually some clearly "wrong" answers, but there may be several "right" ones. Which answer any scientist views as the "most correct" or "most ethical" one depends on many factors, including individual experience and values.

Our professionalism and ethics course meets once a week for a two-hour period over a 15 week semester. With this format, we are able to cover 15 topics. Most topics are selected by the instructors, but each semester the graduate students enrolled choose one or two topics of interest to their particular group. During the first hour of each class period, one of the instructors or an invited expert presents information about a topic. Invited speakers have included faculty from agriculture and other disciplines (e.g. philosophy, finance), alumni of the department employed in different sectors of agriculture, and university administrators and staff. No one has ever turned down an invitation to speak to this class! The speakers have welcomed the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience with younger colleagues. The students rate each guest speaker, and only those with superior ratings are asked for return engagements. We have found that the use of guest speakers has many advantages. Students get information and advice from different perspectives; they learn about the infrastructure of the university as they build their network; and the workload on the instructors is lessened.

As an example, let's look at the topic of editorial processes and manuscript review. During the first hour of class, the speaker can explain the path that a manuscript takes between submission by and return to the author; the roles of Associate Editors, Senior Editors, and Editors-in-Chief; the responsibilities and rights of reviewers; and the options available to the author when a manuscript is rejected. During the second hour, the class can discuss the information presented by the speaker, and the instructors can use scenarios to encourage the students to examine ethical dimensions of the topic. To continue with the same example, scenarios involving multiple submission of research findings or conflict of interest of reviewers could be used. Often, two hours is not sufficient time for presentation and discussion of a topic. In these cases, we encourage the discussion to continue either within the classroom, if possible, or at other times and places.

Credit for the class is based on participation in discussions and on completion of a choice of several rather short written projects. These projects can include: a curriculum vitae; an abstract for an oral presentation; a review of a short manuscript or grant preproposal; a one-page preproposal; a course syllabus; a letter of application or of recommendation. Each of these projects can be critically and constructively reviewed by the instructors or by other graduate students. None of the projects are "busy work"; each develops a skill which will be used regularly by a professional scientist.

We have found that there are several keys to the success of a professionalism and ethics course. First, the material presented must be relevant to the students, who must self- select the course because they believe it will be useful to them during their careers. This kind of course should not be made a requirement, or students will consider it a chore, rather than a professional development experience. The fact that students continue to elect to enroll in our course assures us that we are filling a need. Second, the instructors must be willing and able to open themselves to discussion of "gray" areas and to allow disagreement and lack of consensus. While certain practices or policies can be delineated as "wrong" in the current culture of professional scientists, many alternative practices or policies may be equally "right". Students must be given the freedom to explore these alternative paths. Finally, the instructors and students must together develop an atmosphere of trust and sharing in which professional growth can occur. Nothing helps build this rapport better than the willingness of the instructor to say "This happened to me. What should I have done?" We believe that all graduate students should be afforded the opportunity to learn about their future profession and to explore its ethical dimensions. One way to do this is through courses such as the one we have developed, and we encourage you to give it a try!


Bibliography

1. Bebeau, M. J., K. D. Pimple, K. M. T. Muskavitch, S. L. Borden, D. H. Smith and E. Agnew. 1995. Moral reasoning in scientific research: Cases for teaching and assessment. Indiana University. 101 pp.

2. Booth, V. 1993. Communicating in science: writing a scientific paper and speaking at scientific meetings. Second edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 78 pp.

3. D'Arcy, C. J. 1995. What is professionalism and can we teach it? Phytopathology 85:17-18.

4. Day, R. A. 1983. How to write and publish a scientific paper. Second edition. ISI Press. Philadelphia. 181 pp.

5. McMillan, V. E. 1988. Writing papers in the biological sciences. St. Martin's Press, New York. 142 pp.

6. O'Connor, M. 1991. Writing successfully in science. HarperCollinsAcademic, London. 229 pp.

7. Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. 1992. Responsible science: Ensuring the integrity of the research process. Volume I. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C. 199 pp.

8. Penslar, R. L., ed. 1995. Research ethics: Cases and materials. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis. 278 pp.


Copyright Cleora J. D'Arcy

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Last updated: June 12, 1996