More than just ethics

For a course that I took this semester, we were asked to investigate a professional organization’s Code of Ethics for a blog post. Here goes:

I am currently only a member of one professional organization: the American Physical Society, and their guidelines for professional conduct is pretty standard and are mostly about authorship.

In researching this topic, however, I found a professional society whose Code of Ethics I’d much rather discuss: the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. The post I’d like to discuss is not the official Code of Ethics (that can be found here), but comes in the form of a blog post on their website, which comes up adjacent to the official statement. The less formal tone of the post proves to be more effective at communicating principles of ethics to the community.

SIAM: Professional Ethics: Taking the High Road by Dianne P. O’Leary

I highly recommend reading the whole post, but I’ll discuss two sections which stuck out to me from the post. The first section is regarding Professional Integrity. She gives straightforward and helpful statements regarding how to conduct oneself in an academic career. Two of these statements particularly stood out to me:

An old labor rallying cry says, “A full day’s work for a full day’s pay.” Every job has its pleasant and unpleasant aspects. (For me, the worst part of professional life is dealing with academic dishonesty.) But in accepting a job, you agree to perform all of its duties, not just the pleasant ones.

The idea that doing the unpleasant parts of one’s job is an ethical responsibility struck me. I think it is just part of growing up, but this is particularly challenging to me. I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, so I like to imagine the job that I want and the life that I want. Even as a graduate student now, there are parts that are exciting, and parts that are unpleasant. This is not to say that I’m not in the job that I want and the field that I want. It is just to say that life comes with rough edges. To me, growing up means dealing with those.

The physician’s motto—“First, do no harm”—is also relevant to our profession. This means that any product or idea you deliver must be as correct as you can make it, with no known but unannounced defects. Your mathematical model may be used to determine load limits on a building or safeguards on a nuclear stockpile. Your computer program may be used as a module in a hospital’s drug delivery system, or as part of a guidance system in a passenger aircraft. You must do everything you can to ensure that your work, if used as you say it can be, will perform as intended.

The second quote is really quite wonderful. If we oversell our ideas in a scientific paper or aren’t clear about the shortcomings of our code, there could be terrible consequences. Honest presentation of one’s work helps protect from potentially doing harm. It also allows the work to speak for itself.

Dr. O’Leary’s essay on ethics concludes with a section on values. This is the part of the essay that will stay with me for a long time.

“Some people live to work; others work to live.” Whether your job is the greatest joy in your life or just a duty, it is worth reflecting on the broader impact of your work. Maybe your research won’t win a Fields Medal, and maybe you will never be SIAM’s John von Neumann Lecturer, but you can use some of your creative energy to see that your efforts have some positive value. When all is said and done, if you have encouraged an at-risk student, written a clear textbook, helped a staff member or a more junior colleague, or organized a conference that catalyzed new research, you have made contributions that could far outweigh your technical ones. Whatever your values, bring them to work.

I am in graduate school not just to learn to be a researcher, but hopefully to serve college students and help them grow through a critical period of change in their lives. It is refreshing to hear someone raise the fact that our personal interactions can have a greater impact than our scientific contributions. It is so easy to get caught up in the work that we can easily forget this as future faculty.

If we don’t include someone as an author or oversell our own work, we are doing harm. If we take the time to just sit with a colleague or student going through a hard time, we are doing immense good. This gets not at the rules of ethics, but at its heart.

Through all of our work, whether we realize it or not, we are impacting people. Let’s do so for the better.


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