Open channels

Review of the journal Science and Engineering Ethics. Editors Stephanie J. Bird and Raymond Spier. 4/yr. $130/77 pounds (institutional); $66/42 pounds (personal).

Published in Nature, Vol. 383, 5 September 1996, p. 42
Pdf of review

Reviewed by Brian Martin

Denial of authorship, misrepresentation in a curriculum vitae, misuse of grant monies, denial of access to biological specimens, theft of patent rights -- these are just some of the things I've been informed about over the past several months in long discussions with a few scientists and engineers. They provided plenty of documents too. In my studies of fraud and misrepresentation in science, it is apparent that the few publicised cases are the tip of an iceberg of ethical problems.

There is certainly plenty of material to be dealt with by the new journal Science and Engineering Ethics. Some topics receive a fair bit of attention, such as questions of authorship and data selection, with Millikan's oil drop experiment the subject of much comment. But there are many others, including decision making about genetic engineering, the hazards of whistleblowing, research on HIV infection, creative accounting and the right to die in dignity. Some important areas are as yet untreated, such as ethical dilemmas associated with weapons research. Imbalances are only to be expected; academic scientists and engineers, who have the greatest intellectual freedom, write most often about ethical issues that concern them personally.

As well as publishing papers -- selected by double-blind refereeing, what else? -- the journal includes articles about teaching ethics to scientists and engineers, reports on conferences and meetings, and book reviews. One of its best features is the publication of comments on papers, often giving strongly contrasting viewpoints.

The editors set out to get practising scientists and engineers to write about the ethical challenges that they encounter on the job, as well as contributions from others familiar with the field. A resulting weakness is an occasional lack of focus and unevenness in quality. More than compensating for this is the journal's accessibility and relevance. With contributors writing from a range of disciplines, often aimed at practical interventions to improve scientific practice, there are actually quite a few articles that could usefully be given to colleagues or students. In other words, the journal so far has kept open channels of communication and avoided becoming an in-group of professionals writing for each other. May it continue to do so.

Brian Martin is in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia and president of Whistleblowers Australia.

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