Ethics and Data Integrity

25 05 2011

Ethics and data integrity are critical in environmental monitoring, as in any scientific endeavor.  Sound decisions come from reliable scientific information.  Participants in the process, including the sampling personnel, laboratory personnel, data reviewers, and project team, must be held at a level of ethics and integrity by themselves, their organizations, and the professional community.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state and local agencies, as well as professional entities work independently and collaboratively to instill these values among our professionals.  In 2001, the U.S. EPA Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) issued an open letter to the laboratory community about this subject.  Similarly, President Barack Obama stressed the importance of scientific integrity in a 2009 presidential memorandum to the EPA for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch’s involvement with scientific and technological processes.

I encourage every scientist, student, and those getting into the scientific field to read the National Academy of Sciences publications titled On Being a Scientist.  The Academy stresses that the scientific research enterprise is built on foundation of trust. Trust will be there only if scientific community devotes itself to exemplifying and transmitting the values associated with ethical scientific conduct. Since science has progressed through time with individual creativity, innovation, and skepticism, the need for openness to new scientific contributions and persistent questioning of those contributions and the existing scientific consensus.

Defining Data Integrity

From Wikipedia.com:

  • the condition that exists when data is unchanged from its source and has not been accidentally or maliciously modified, altered, or destroyed
  • the condition in which data are identically maintained during any operation, such as transfer, storage, and retrieval
  • the preservation of data for their intended use
  • Involves three aspects of the data: Accuracy, Correctness, Validity

Defining Ethics
Ethics is a set of principles of right conduct, a system of moral values. Simply put, it is doing the right thing, even when noone is looking.  The American Society for Quality (ASQ) defines ethical behavior as conformance to accepted professional standard of conduct.

Improper Practice and Fraud

The U.S. EPA’s defines improper practice as “a scientifically unsound or technically unjustified omission, manipulation or alteration of analytical procedures.” It could involve generation of data by passing quality control parameters, making the results appear acceptable, alteration of data such that the data are untrue representations of the test performed, or altering or otherwise compromising analytical reports without authorization.

Not all ethical lapses or improper practice constitutes fraud.  The EPA’s OIG defines laboratory fraud as “the deliberate falsification of analytical and quality assurance results where failed method and contractual requirements are made to appear acceptable.”

Common Causes of Ethical Lapses and System Vulnerability:

  • Production pressure
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Lack of awareness
  • Lack of communication
  • Misinterpretation of method requirements
  • Personality and attitude
  • Financial instability
  • Inadequate training
  • Poor workload management
  • Inadequate documentation and document control
  • Unclear roles/responsibilitiesInadequate procedures for addressing ethical dilemmasInadequate oversight

Examples of Improper Practices in the Laboratory:

    Time traveling
    Peak “shaving”
    Juicing
    Cut and paste
    Dry labbing
    Manipulation of documentation

Implementing an Ethics and Data Integrity Policy

Ethical lapses can and do occur – even with trained scientific personnel.  These actions can occur in subtle forms. Awareness is the key to prevention. Investigations such as those by the EPA continue and become more prominent. Training, education, workshops, and standards developed by the various groups help in maintaining integrity in this important field we are in.   A good ethics and data  integrity program helps staff understand the consequences of improper practices.

Quality assurance is more than a program; it is a philosophy, a way of life.  As a program that is mechanically followed, quality assurance is doomed to failure.  As a philosophy, there is a chance for success.  When it is approached as both a program and a philosophy, the changes for producing high quality data are excellent”
John Keenan Taylor

“Real science is a search for the truth as can be demonstrated by repeatable measurements of natural phenomena.  There should never be undue pressure for results to turn out in some pre-conceived way.  Hypotheses should be tested honestly. Conclusions should not be exaggerated.  If errors are made, they should be admitted and then everyone should move forward for the greater good. A true scientist is a person of undeniable integrity, who is trustworthy in the face of all odds. “

Russ Frydenborg, Environmental Assessment Section Administrator, Florida DEP

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