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Research ethics
The “how” and “whys” of research: life scientists’ views of accountability
  1. J M Ladd1,
  2. M D Lappé1,2,
  3. J B McCormick3,
  4. A M Boyce4,
  5. M K Cho1
  1. 1
    Center for Integration of Research on Genetics and Ethics, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA
  2. 2
    Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA
  3. 3
    Departments of Medicine and of Health Sciences Research, Mayo Clinic and College of Medicine, Rochester, MN, USA
  4. 4
    Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
  1. Correspondence to Mildred Cho, 701 Welch Road, Suite A1105, Palo Alto, CA 94034, USA; micho{at}


Objectives: To investigate life scientists’ views of accountability and the ethical and societal implications of research.

Design: Qualitative focus group and one-on-one interviews.

Participants: 45 Stanford University life scientists, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty.

Results: Two main themes were identified in participants’ discussions of accountability: (1) the “how” of science and (2) the “why” of science. The “how” encompassed the internal conduct of research including attributes such as honesty and independence. The “why,” or the motivation for conducting research, was two-tiered: first was the desire to positively impact the research community and science itself, and second was an interest in positively impacting the external community, broadly referred to as society. Participants noted that these motivations were influenced by the current systems of publications, grants and funding, thereby supporting a complex notion of boundary-setting between science and non-science. In addition, while all participants recognised the “how” of science and the two tiers of “why,” scientists expressed the need to prioritise these domains of accountability. This prioritisation was related to a researcher’s position in the academic career trajectory and to the researcher’s subsequent “perceived proximity” to scientific or societal concerns. Our findings therefore suggest the need for institutional change to inculcate early-stage researchers with a broader awareness of the implications of their research. The peer review processes for funding and publication could be effective avenues for encouraging scientists to broaden their views of accountability to society.

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  • Funding This study was supported by grant no. P50 HG003389 from the US National Institutes of Health, National Human Genome Research Institute.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and Peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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