The Scientific Community and Norms and Values in Research

By: Getachew W. (Ph.D.), LIC, October 2022

The scientific community brings science to life; it sustains the assumptions, attitudes, and techniques of science (Neuman, 2014). Neuman (2014:12) defines a scientific community: “a social institution of people, organizations, and roles as well as a set of norms, behaviors, and attitudes that all operate together”. The author believes that the core of the scientific community is made up of researchers who conduct studies on a full-time or regular basis, usually with the help of assistants, many of whom are graduate students. The scientific community does not operate in a vacuum isolated from the “real world.” It is affected by social, political, and economic forces. Nonetheless, the norms and values teach us how the scientific community and the larger research enterprise operate. They also provide a guide for the proper way to conduct a research study and provide the principles of good research practice.

Based on the work of Merton (1973), Neuman (2014:14) states the norms and values of the scientific community as follows:  

  1. Universalism. Regardless of who conducts research (e.g., old or young, male or female) and where it was conducted, the research is to be judged only based on scientific merit.
  2. Organized skepticism. Scientists should not accept new ideas or evidence in a carefree, uncritical manner. They should challenge and question all evidence and subject each study to intense scrutiny. The purpose of their criticism is not to attack the individual but to ensure that the methods used in research can stand up to close, careful examination.
  3. Disinterestedness. Scientists must be neutral, impartial, receptive, and open to unexpected observations and new ideas. They should not be rigidly wedded to a particular idea or point of view. They should accept, even look for, evidence that runs against their positions and should honestly accept all findings based on high-quality research.
  4. Communalism. Scientific knowledge must be shared with others; it belongs to everyone. Creating scientific knowledge is a public act, and the findings are public property, available for all to use. How the research is conducted must be described in detail. New knowledge is not formally accepted until other researchers have reviewed it and it has been made publicly available in a special form and style.

Based on a report, the National Academy of Sciences (2017) presents six values that are most influential in shaping the norms that constitute research practices and relationships and the integrity of science. These are:

1. Objectivity

The hallmark of scientific thinking that differentiates it from other modes of human inquiry and expression such as literature and art is its dedication to rational and empirical inquiry. In this context, objectivity is central to the scientific worldview. Karl Popper (1999) viewed scientific objectivity as consisting of the freedom and responsibility of the researcher to (1) pose refutable hypotheses, (2) test the hypotheses with the relevant evidence, and (3) state the results clearly and unambiguously to any interested person. The goal is reproducibility, which is essential to advancing knowledge through experimental science. If these steps are followed diligently, any reasonable second researcher should be able to follow the same steps to replicate the work.

2. Honesty

A researcher’s freedom to advance knowledge is tied to his or her responsibility, to be honest. Science as an enterprise producing reliable knowledge is based on the assumption of honesty. Science is predicated on agreed-upon systematic procedures for determining the empirical or theoretical basis of a proposition. Dishonest science violates that agreement and therefore violates a defining characteristic of science. Honesty is the principal value that underlies all of the other relationship values. For example, without an honest foundation, realizing the values of openness, accountability, and fairness would be impossible

3. Openness

Openness is not the same as honesty, but it is predicated on honesty. In the scientific enterprise, openness refers to the value of being transparent and presenting all the information relevant to a decision or conclusion. This is essential so that others in the web of the research enterprise can understand why a decision or conclusion was reached. Openness also means making the data on which a result is based available to others so that they may reproduce and verify results or build on them. In some contexts, openness means listening to conflicting ideas or negative results without allowing preexisting biases or expectations to cloud one’s judgment. In this respect, openness reinforces objectivity and the achievement of reliable observations and results.

4. Accountability

Central to the functioning of the research enterprise is the fundamental value that members of the community are responsible for and stand behind their work, statements, actions, and roles in the conduct of their work. At its core, accountability implies an obligation to explain and/or justify one’s behavior. Accountability requires that individuals be willing and able to demonstrate the validity of their work or the reasons for their actions. Accountability goes hand in hand with the credit researchers receive for their contributions to science and how this credit builds their reputations as members of the research enterprise. Accountability also enables those in the web of relationships to rely on work presented by others as a foundation for additional advances.

5. Fairness

The scientific enterprise is filled with professional relationships. Many of them involve judging others’ work for purposes of funding, publication, or deciding who is hired or promoted. Being fair in these contexts means making professional judgments based on appropriate and announced criteria, including processes used to determine outcomes. Fairness in adhering to explicit criteria and processes reinforces a system in which the core values can operate and trust among the parties can be maintained.

6. Stewardship

The research enterprise cannot continue to function unless the members of that system exhibit good stewardship both toward the other members of the system and toward the system itself. Good stewardship implies being aware of and attending carefully to the dynamics of the relationships within the lab, at the institutional level, and at the broad level of the research enterprise itself. Although we have listed stewardship as the final value of the six we discuss in this report, it supports all the others. Here we take up stewardship within the research enterprise but pause to acknowledge the extension of this value to encompass the larger society.

Research Integrity Practicing integrity in research means planning, proposing, performing, reporting, and reviewing research following the values described above. These values should be upheld by research institutions, research sponsors, journals, and learned societies as well as by individual researchers and research groups. General norms and specific research practices that conform to these values have developed over time. Sometimes norms and practices need to be updated as technologies and the institutions that compose the research enterprise evolve. There are also disciplinary differences in some specific research practices, but norms and appropriate practices generally apply across research fields. Best research practices are those actions undertaken by individuals and organizations that are based on the core values of science and enable good research. They should be embraced, practiced, and promoted (The National Academy of Sciences, 2017).

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