I happened to come across this article and it reminded me of the general point that it’s possible to behave unethically without being a “bad guy.”
The story in question involves some scientists who did some experiments about thirty years ago on the biological effects of low-frequency magnetic fields. They published their results in a series of papers which I read when I was a student, and I found some places where I thought their analysis could be improved.
The topic seemed somewhat important—at the time, there was concern about cancer risks from exposure to power lines and other sources of low-frequency magnetic fields—so I sent a letter to the authors of the paper, pointing out two ways I thought their analysis could be improved, and requesting their raw data. I followed up the letter with a phone call.
Just for some context:
1. At no time did I think, or do I think, that they were doing anything unethical in their data collection or analysis. I just thought that they weren’t making full use of the data they had. Their unethical behavior, as I see it, came at the next stage, when they refused to share their data.
2. Those were simpler times. I assumed by default that published work was high quality, so when I saw what seemed like a flaw in the analysis, I wasn’t so sure—I was very open to the possibility that I’d missed something myself—and I didn’t see the problems in that paper as symptomatic of any larger issues.
3. I was not trying to “gotcha” these researchers. I thought they too would be interested in getting more information out of their data.
To continue with the story: When I called on the phone, the lead researcher on the project said he didn’t want to share the data: they were in lab notebooks and it would be effort to copy these, and his statistician had assured him that the analysis was just fine as is.
I think this was unethical behavior, given that: (a) at the time, this work was considered to have policy implications; (b) there was no good reason for the researcher to think that his statistician had particular expertise in this sort of analysis; (c) I’d offered some specific ways in which the data analysis could be improved so there was a justification for my request; (d) the work had been done at the Environmental Protection Agency, which is part of the U.S. government; (e) the dataset was pretty small so how hard could it be to photocopy some pages of lab notebooks and drop them in the mail; and, finally (f) the work was published in a scientific journal that was part of the public record.
A couple decades later, I wrote about the incident and the biologist and the statistician responded with defenses of their actions. I felt at the time of the original event, and after reading their letters, and I still feel, that these guys were trying to do their best, that they were acting according what they perceived to be their professional standards, and that they were not trying to impede the progress of science and public health.
To put it another way, I did not, and do not, think of them as “bad guys.” Not that this is so important—there’s no reason why these two scientists should particularly care about my opinion of them, nor am I any kind of moral arbiter here. I’m just sharing my perspective to make the more general point that it is possible to behave unethically without being a bad person.
I do think the lack of data sharing was unethical—not as unethical as fabricating data (Lacour), or hiding data (Hauser) or brushing aside a barrage of legitimate criticism from multiple sources (Cuddy), or lots of other examples we’ve discussed over the years on this blog—but I do feel it is a real ethical lapse, for reasons (a)-(f) given above. But I don’t think of this as the product of “bad guys.”
My point is that it’s possible to go about your professional career, doing what you think is right, but still making some bad decisions: actions which were not just mistaken in retrospect, but which can be seen as ethical violations on some scale.
One way to view this is everyone involved in research—including those of us who see ourselves as good guys—should be aware that we can make unethical decisions at work. “Unethical” labels the action, not the person, and ethics is a product of a situation as well as of the people involved.