July 26,  2004
Volume 82, Number 30


THE ETHICAL CHEMIST: Professionalism and Ethics in Science, by Jeffrey Kovac, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2003, 144 pages, $21.20 (paperback) (ISBN 0-13-141132-2)




Consider the following: you are a first-year graduate student, and your group's research adviser is one of the world's most respected individuals in a given area. In your lab there are a mix of postdoctoral researchers, graduates, and undergraduates.

You begin to notice that one of the senior students is quite open about what appears to be questionable experimental practices. He does not really keep a notebook. He scribbles out a little information about what he has done, sometimes only the date and the starting time. He does not purify what you are sure are both sensitive and impure starting materials. In addition, he performs experiments and does multiple chromatographic separations, recording data on these isolated bits of products.

His practices are quite well known in the lab, and a number of jokes and asides by your labmates affirm your perceptions. Indeed, this student has even been heard to quip: "If I had done this the right way, I think the yield would have been 75%." When the research adviser comes to the lab for a weekly progress update, the student presents the data on the chromatographed materials and reports a 75% yield. The adviser and student have already published three papers based on similar work.

As the first-year student, how should you proceed? And what if you were one of the other lab members, or one of the faculty member's colleagues to whom the first-year student has turned for advice?

Case studies such as this are one of the most powerful ways to discuss thorny moral dilemmas, because you and others participate in an important decision-making process in a low-stakes setting. If adding discussions about the type of situation described above fits your interests for either academic classrooms or nonacademic workshops, "The Ethical Chemist," a new book by Jeffrey Kovac, will meet your practical needs.

About 10 years ago, Kovac, a chemistry professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, published a collection of case studies under this same title. Fifty cases, some from that collection and others that are new, make up three-quarters of this book. The cases describe a range of situations that undergraduate or beginning graduate students might face as they undertake research, with titles such as "Data Points," "An Accidental Spill," "Pressure on a Friend," and "Star Postdoc." Each of the cases includes commentary and talking points, which makes this collection particularly helpful for experienced and inexperienced users alike.

Most of the first four chapters of "The Ethical Chemist" are essays based on some of Kovac's other published work. The essays explore a variety of topics that typically are not examined by chemists; namely, the moral frameworks that gird our work and our profession.

Following the introduction, the second chapter--on ethics, morals, and ethical theory--provides a brief survey of ethics, a formal area of philosophy that chemistry majors would have missed if they did not take Philosophy 101 in college. Ethical theories provide useful viewpoints for analyzing moral dilemmas. Chapter 3, on professionalism and ethics in chemistry, gives a historical developmental look at chemistry research practices, including the recent shift in emphasis toward applied work in academia. Chapter 4, on ethical problem solving, attempts to construct a comfortably familiar rubric for analyzing the cases that compose the rest of the book.

The four-part rubric mirrors a simplistic "scientific method," and it unfortunately comes off as too short, too naive, and too contrived: a. define the problem, b. collect data, c. analyze the data, and d. make judgments. Better, I think, is to use the language of decisions and their consequences. Then, rather than arriving at a verdict, students reach the most morally defensible position.

Case studies ... are one of the most powerful ways to discuss thorny moral dilemmas, because you and others participate in an important decision-making process in a low-stakes setting.

In her review of "The Ethical Chemist," Northwestern University chemistry professor Patricia Ann Mabrouk [J. Chem. Educ., 81, 806 (2004)] criticizes Kovac strongly on a few points. Her criticisms can be framed as questions: "Is this book a stand-alone text?" "Can a novice use this book to design a course or workshop?" "Do the cases cover all possible venues and research environments?" The answer to all three is, "No."

Kovac's book is a practical text, akin to a workbook of spectroscopy problems. It presumes that a user is familiar with the area of teaching research ethics, which has been required on some campuses for more than 10 years, and about which there is a great deal published; for example, the standard definitions of misconduct and the structures within institutions geared to support ethical practices and respond to misconduct. The introduction should lay out the limitations of the book, but it doesn't.

Chapters 2 and 3 are essays on important topics for which there are no other concise resources, and they are clearly useful as the basis for discussion rather than being instructional in the sense of a textbook. As Mabrouk correctly notes, the cases in this book cover extraordinarily ordinary topics rather than modern complexities in bioscience, animal subject testing, interdisciplinary research, and so on.

But I think this is fine for a book the author intends for students' first consideration of research ethics, particularly because I have been using such cases for 10 years with undergraduate students. Keeping the topics uncomplicated at the outset allows students to better appreciate that these situations are only deceptively simple. Perhaps a sequel to "The Ethical Chemist" can cover more advanced territories.

Kovac's book adds a useful resource for chemists to the still-growing area of teaching research ethics for those who are ready to bring this into their programs.

Brian P. Coppola is a chemistry professor at the University of Michigan. His primary work is in interdisciplinary studies of chemistry and education, psychology, philosophy, and history.

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