ask a scatterbrain: training grads in research ethics

One of the many wonderful sociologists I chatted with in Vegas was Iowa’s Mary Campbell, a loyal scatterplot reader. She asked me to pose a question to you (and I’m hoping in my post-Vegas/ASA/first-week-of-classes haze I remember its essence – if I don’t, I blame Andrew Perrin pushing appletinis at the bloggettogether):

Apparently the University of Iowa has asked departments to ensure that graduate students are trained in research ethics. We’re not just talking about IRB certification, but moving well beyond this. Are others schools requiring such?  How are others approaching the issue? Or, if you’re not, do you have ideas of how to best do this? Of course the ASA has a guide on such concerns* that could certainly be a place to start, but what else is out there? A quick search on Amazon brings up various options, but surely faithful blog readers can provide a more personal recommendation.

* I admit that I only discovered this Code of Ethics this past year when I realized a former colleague published the work of two other former colleagues without any sort of acknowledgment. While I don’t know if ethics training would have prevented the incident, I would have been much more confident that it was an ethical breach and how to handle it if I’d been well-versed in the issues.

5 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: training grads in research ethics”

  1. The required first-year graduate methods course I took at UC Berkeley spent a week (2 classes) on ethics that went a little beyond IRB. Primarily we talked about “consent” and “confidentiality.” Not sure how helpful it was, but it’s another example of what’s currently being done about this.


  2. I was an NIH funded trainee in demography, and all the trainees had to take a semester half-course in research ethics. This was in the wake of the “Baltimore case” and NIH required students receiving fellowships to take a research ethics course. It ended up covering issues both of scientific integrity, human subjects, and ethics in the research process but also professional integrity/ethics such as authorship and mentorship, the peer review process, sharing of credit and data, and the politics of research in the public arena. The stuff on mentorship and authorship has been especially useful as I now directly engage in a discussion about expectations and authorship with all my RAs from day one. At the time the senior grad students were really uncomfortable with an assignment that asked you to do a mentoring survey with your mentor (after establishing whatever relationship one had with that person already), but overall it was a reasonably useful class that I didn’t think would be at the time.


  3. About a year ago NSF mandated a separate training on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) for all Post-Docs, graduate students, and undergraduates who are working on research supported by NSF. NIH has a more extensive requirement in RCR training that is currently limited to postdoc and mentored scientist mechanisms.

    Some universities have decided to mandate RCR training for all graduate students, to simplify insuring compliance with the NSF and emerging NIH requirements.

    NSF does not require specific training (e.g., the CITI module) and some institutions have developed simple on-line training to meet this mandate. NSF does, however, require that every institution with NSF funding have a formal RCR training plan that they can audit at request.


  4. I think it’s essential to teach grad students about both what IRBs do and what they are not interested in doing — ethical decision-making is not what IRBs are about, they are for protecting institutions from liability. Both are probably essential, but I prefer to stress the former in my (required) grad methods course. This includes the problems of studying up as well as down (IRB doesn’t care about risks to the researcher personally) and different standards by discipline (oral historians need different confidentiality rules than sociologists, and journalists are often exempt from rules that hamper us from studying elites).
    Some readings I recommend include:
    ASA Code of Ethics (on line at
    Hoeyer, Klaus, Lisa Dahlager and Niels Lynöe 2005. “Conflicting notions of research ethics: The mutually challenging traditions of social scientists and medical researchers,” Social Science & Medicine, 61(8): 1741-1749.
    Halse, Christine and Anne Honey 2005 “Unraveling Ethics: Illuminating the Moral Dilemmas of Research Ethics” Signs 30(4): 2141-2162.
    Elliott, Carl 2008. “Guinea-pigging: Healthy human subjects for drug-safety trials are in demand. But is it a living?” The New Yorker, January 7, 83(42): 36ff. (some insights into what is and isn’t an “ethical concern”)
    Some short practical discussions (select a few to read):
    1) Christopher Shea, 2000. “Don’t Talk to the Humans: The Crackdown on Social Science Research” Lingua Franca 10 (6)
    2) Monaghan, Peter 1999. “Can scholars protect confidential sources?” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 7.
    3) Rosenbloom, Stephanie 2007. “On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data” New York Times, December 17.
    4) Cohen, Patricia 2007, “IRBs extend reach” New York Times, Feb 28.
    5) Irvine, Janice 2006. “Sex, lies and research.” Mobilization 11 (4): 491-494.
    6) Kirsch, Gesa 2005. “Friendship, friendliness and feminist fieldwork” Signs, 30(4): 2163-2172.

    I’d love suggestions for additional short readings! There are also longer but very useful discussions in Risk and Danger in Fieldwork and other anthro-oriented collections.


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