Public Release: 

Teaching Of Scientific Ethics Is Not Very Scientific

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Scientific integrity translates into public trust. But how well do budding scientists learn the art of their chosen field from their mentors -- the professors who supervise their graduate education?

Preliminary findings of research that looks at the science of training scientists suggest that "graduate education is not very scientific in itself," said Robert Sprague, a professor of psychology and of kinesiology at the University of Illinois, in a presentation today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Sprague and Glyn C. Roberts, a U. of I. professor of kinesiology, have been studying the mentoring process and developing the first tool -- a questionnaire-style document -- to help measure the quality and climate of a university's or department's programs.

Two distinct climates came through clearly in a 1994-95 survey of faculty members and graduate students in 50 departments at a major Midwest university:

  • A competitive atmosphere marked by intense competition for grants and publication, rivalry for the presentation of papers at conventions and personal competitiveness among faculty members.

  • An educational climate in which mastery of skills and collaborative team efforts help build a collegial work environment.


"Every graduate education program stresses mentoring as being very important," Sprague said. "But when you go look at the data on the subject, there isn't much to find."

In fact, a literature search done before their study found only one assessment scale, which evaluated the mentors of student teachers. A troubling discovery, Sprague noted, was there was nothing that focused on the influence of mentoring on the development of ethical beliefs for minority and international graduate students.

"Foreign students often come to this country with a different set of ethical values than is commonly held in the United States," Sprague said. "It seems quite likely that these differing values might cause problems."

In some countries, for instance, attribution for a source of previously known material is not necessary; simply quoting the knowledge is seen as honoring the authority, Sprague said. In the United States, the failure to use citations is plagiarism. "There is a conflict of cultural values that is not immediately realized by the students," he said. "We need to address these."

American universities give "a lot of lip service to mentoring," but in actuality there has been no way to assess how the system works, Sprague said.

To study the functions provided by mentors at their targeted university, Sprague and Roberts considered four factors: professional promotion, measured by the support and feedback given to a student; cloning, which considered how strongly faculty members encouraged their students to be like them; empathy, gauged by the openness with which students could talk about their anxieties; and assistive socializing, or how much opportunity students were given to interact with other scientists.

Sprague and Roberts conclude that universities should look inward at how well they train their graduate students, and that more emphasis is needed for the teaching of general scientific ethics.

"It seems imperative that there ought to be some standardized methods of assessing the quality of mentoring," Sprague said. "At present, each university is a law unto itself as to evaluating graduate educational mentoring programs, and it is likely that this situation will continue for some time.

"The situation is quite in contrast with educational attainment where it is routine for scholarly and professional organizations to closely scrutinize and evaluate universities as to the adequacy of their education in some specific discipline," he said.

Sprague has been intensely interested in scientific ethics since 1983, when his own life was changed by five years of turmoil that began after he accused a former colleague of falsifying data. Because Sprague reported suspected misconduct, he became the target of scrutiny. He lost his own funding after 18 years of continuous support. He was investigated in his own laboratory. By 1988, the focus had finally turned to the accused researcher, who eventually was indicted for scientific fraud.

About the same time that the researcher was pleading guilty in Baltimore to two federal charges of filing false reports, in the fall of 1988, Sprague began teaching a graduate-level course on scientific ethics at the U. of I.

He will detail his own experience in a separate AAAS lecture (Saturday, Feb. 15, 2 p.m. PST) in a session on science and law. Following his presentation, C.K. Gunsalus, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the U. of I., will discuss the responsibilities of academic institutions.

"We must work to improve the lot of graduate students who have no social power, and postdocs and assistant professors without tenure," Sprague said. "The science profession needs to be more receptive to complaints and criticisms. We should not alienate those who cry foul as complainers. Even a person with a difficult personality may actually be right. We must protect the accused and the person who is making the accusation."

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