Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Research Ethics

Whether in life, work or research, never weight ethics less than air.
Just a few more weeks to go and I will be officially done with my Master's thesis (hopefully). I have been wondering what to write for the whole weekend and couldn't think of any good ideas. Then, I realized I have not cover an important topic - ethics in research. When I just got into grad school, we had a seminar on research ethics. Like most grad students, I started to yawn and wanted to walk away. But after being in research for almost one and half year, I have truly understood why it is important. I would like to share some thoughts with you here.

I will start my discussion with my impression with academia - not honorable. I wouldn't call it corrupted but definitely not honorable as you think it is. And that is why I really want to spread out the importance of ethical research. I will list 2 experiences of mine which lead me to this conclusion.
  1. In control theory, I have seen numerous highly cited to have numerical errors in the simulation portion of their papers. Although this is not that bad, but it prevents others from redoing the simulation. It might be the case that the results were fabricated. Who knows?
  2. I submitted a paper to a conference and got rejected. I got 2 good reviews and 2 bad reviews. In the end, I was rejected due to one reviewer's view only. I was really furious back then. The 2 reviewers have shown that they have not read the paper carefully and started to draw their own conclusion. I was not even consulted before they draw their conclusion. One of the bad reviewers even gave a one line review. Honestly, is this how you adhere to your professional standards? Or perhaps there is no professional standards in academia? Anyhow, this is an old story and I resubmitted the paper to some workshop and got accepted.
With these two experiences, I really started to ask myself - how does one defines ethics in academia? To answer this question, I found this website. According to it, one common way to define it is "the norm of conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior". I completely disagree with this definition. I understand that paper in conference are rarely read thoroughly (after having mine rejected). In fact, it has become the norm to scan through the conference paper. If you use that definition, then it is "ethical", which is obviously not.

It is extremely tough to define ethics. To do so, I turn to my ancestor's wisdom - Confucius. He has a famous quote as follows - "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others (己所不欲,勿施於人。)". My definition of ethics is simply don't do something that would cause harm or discomfort to others. In research, never publish something that is fake or useless because people will take your work seriously and read through your paper. When they find that it is useless or fake, you are wasting others time. Would you like it when you are wasting precious time? Same goes to reviewing papers. Never judge a paper simply by your ignorance.

The website that I just mentioned has quite a few good ethical principles listed. They are as follows:
  • Honesty
  • Carefulness
  • Integrity
  • Openness
  • Responsible Publishing
  • Non-discrimination
I will be leaving academia soon, but I would like to leave one advice behind. For those who are going to stay in academia or those who are just going to start grad school, I advice you to choose ethical research. My father always told me this - "You can fool some people some time, you can fool some people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time". If you try to play dirty tricks in your academia career, sooner or later, your actions will be exposed and you will face great loses. Ethical research is not only responsible choice, it is also a good investment for your future and the future of academia.


  1. Interesting topic. I'm thinking about ethical research as one of my thesis ideas but I'm still narrowing down my options. I've gotten inspiration from seminars I've attended, like you! This post is very helpful, the cases you state are making me consider ethical research seriously. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for compliments. I wish you all the best in your research!


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