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Ethics Across Borders

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

For today's early-career researchers—students, postdocs, faculty members, and staff scientists—doing science in countries other than their own is an increasingly common experience. Working internationally offers exciting professional opportunities, but it also presents challenges such as unfamiliar languages, food, climate, currency, and local customs. But the challenge with the greatest potential impact—one that can torpedo projects and even careers—is less obvious.

It is the need to understand and act on norms of ethical and responsible research that may differ considerably from those at home. Scientists' "assumptions and their training in research methods may not be shared with their collaborators. … Even their expectations about what mentoring and advising look like may differ across cultural and national boundaries," warns Daniel Denecke, associate vice president of programs and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), in an interview with Science Careers.

Misunderstanding cultural differences can have disastrous consequences.

The same goes for expectations about who owns or controls ideas, data, and writings; what constitutes conflict of interest and informed consent; what responsibilities individuals have if they observe wrongdoing; and other complex issues that arise in scientific research. Scientists often "believe that science is universal, so it's easy to lose sight [of the fact] that the cultural preconditions for successful science may not be universal," Denecke says. Doing productive science with colleagues from other countries—whether you've gone abroad as an international student, postdoc, or more senior researcher, or are working in your own country with collaborators or subjects located elsewhere—thus demands not only "high-level scientific skills" but also attention to "cultural and social aspects [that] are not intuitive."

Getting these issues wrong can lead to consequences ranging from poor communication to disputes with mentors and colleagues and, beyond that, to accusations of research misconduct and legal trouble. Scientists new to international collaboration, therefore, need clear guidance on navigating this potentially tricky terrain, including appropriate practices for authorship credit, data ownership and sharing, legal and bureaucratic requirements, and much more. Knowledge of and adherence to the code of ethical and responsible research that prevails in the country where a scientist is working is a fundamental requirement of success. Arguing that practices at home depart from the host country's standards will not excuse or repair missteps you make while working abroad.

Universities offer training in ethics and responsible conduct of research, but "we've heard again and again that there's just a huge gap with respect to the international issues," Denecke notes. That's why CGS has undertaken a project in conjunction with 11 U.S. universities to develop best practices for training faculty members and students in these areas.

The power of norms

"One of the goals of this project is to help students think about labs as environments where science is practiced, [but] also [as] an environment that's shaped by culture and by norms," says Julia Kent, CGS's director of global communications and best practices and Denecke's co–principal investigator on the project. As noted in an article by Melissa Anderson of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, those norms can vary on a number of levels.

Much depends on how research is funded and organized. The United States concentrates its civilian research in universities, with projects funded mainly by competitive grants awarded to individual faculty members. Some nations give larger roles to government-run research entities. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, for example, has labs on campuses throughout the country, giving national policy a far greater influence on research priorities than in the United States. Many other countries do a very substantial share of their science at freestanding research institutes. Each of these systems, along with many other versions practiced by countries around the world, creates its own specific incentives, obligations, limitations, and legal requirements that everyone working within it must understand.

Doctoral training also takes varying forms. Most U.S. Ph.D. programs require coursework before students can undertake their dissertation research. That dissertation research usually relates to a larger project directed by the professor whose grants support the students. In many European countries, Ph.D. students do not need to take courses, and they often work on their dissertation research quite independently, with professors acting as guides or advisers rather than as directors of overarching projects. Nearly everywhere, a central element of Ph.D. programs is the dissertation defense, which in many countries happens soon after the dissertation is completed. In China, however, students generally must publish in a recognized journal before they are permitted to defend.

Other differences affect daily life in the lab, especially norms concerning authority, originality, individuality, and manner of communication. In the United States, faculty members of all ranks are expected to function as collegial members of their departments, head their labs, and win funding. Japan's traditional koza or "chair" system, on the other hand, gives senior professors tight control over the activities and funding of a group of subordinates that includes not just students but also less senior faculty members.

Scientists everywhere work in teams, but teamwork takes different forms in different cultural and institutional contexts. According to a CGS paper, the factors shaping relationships and practices include "how strongly these units stress group work and achievement over and above individual success; the hierarchy or balance of power among members of the research team; the nature of the relationship between supervisors and students; and the extent to which student contributions to research are recognized and rewarded." In China, the paper continues, students often "see it as their responsibility to follow without question the directions of their supervisors." Their counterparts in Japan "often view their role as one of maintaining harmony within their research units." Americans, on the other hand, often strive to distinguish themselves, sometimes by offering suggestions or opinions that question those of superiors—a behavior that may strike newcomers from China, Japan, and some other countries as presumptuous or insubordinate.

Crossing the line

Misunderstanding cultural differences can have disastrous consequences. "[V]iews on scientific writing and plagiarism can be strikingly different from US norms," write bioethicists Elizabeth Heitman of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville and Sergio Litewka of the University of Miami in Florida, in an article. "[I]nternational trainees, especially from developing nations, have particular trouble with US standards of scholarly writing and are at significantly higher risk for committing plagiarism than their US peers"—a violation that in the United States will seriously harm, or even destroy, a career. This risk exists because many international students come from countries where "plagiarism is ill-defined and even commonly practiced," Heitman and Litewka continue. Scientists educated in "countries where memorization is a common pedagogical technique are sometimes surprised by US expectations that they cite sources for all direct quotations," they add. Individuals educated this way often assume that knowledgeable people "will be familiar with the original, authoritative source of certain material." Even "established scholars" in some countries view plagiarism as "a tribute to the person plagiarized," Heitman and Litewka note.

Practices and expectations regarding such questions are so variable, they continue, that one study found "country of origin [to be] a strong predictor of students' tolerance for cheating." In a comparison of American, Dutch, Israeli, and Russian students headed by economist Jan Magnus of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, Americans proved the least tolerant of academic dishonesty and Russians were the most tolerant. People whom Americans view as admirable whistleblowers appear to Russians—raised in a country with a long history of oppressive government and paid informers—as contemptible snitches.

Training to avoid trouble

As Anderson's paper suggests in its title, "anticipating challenges instead of being surprised" is the wisest, most constructive, and often the kindest approach in international situations. "It's very important to take into account research integrity issues from the outset" of any project involving people from different countries, Kent says.

Several international efforts have worked to clarify and codify differences in national expectations regarding research integrity. The current CGS study, however, "is not about harmonizing or coordinating policies, but about preparing young … graduate students so that they understand … how cultural expectations might differ across national borders, so that they can reduce the likelihood that all these differences might create problems down the road," Denecke says in the interview. "We're really trying to help graduate schools help their faculty to tailor responses to that need."

Aspiring scientists are equipped to take advantage of good information, suggests a U.S. National Academies conference report on international research collaborations. "[M]any of the individual characteristics that favor cross-cultural aptitude are found in most researchers," it states. "These include openness to others and to new information, tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility, curiosity, the ability to ask good questions, and the ability to quickly discern pattern." Along with improved training, those qualities will equip many early-career researchers to make the most of their international experiences.

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