Committing to an Ethics Code

How can we cultivate a culture of ethical conduct? A story on one approach that may not have achieved a richer culture.

This is a post in a series of Stories From My PhD. For background on this series, read the announcement post.

As a researcher you are bound to uphold certain standards of conduct.

When I defended my PhD, I was reminded of that rather explicitly with the following statement before being awarded my degree:

You acquire hereby all the rights that by law or custom, are made or will be attached to the doctorate. Apart from rights, the doctorate also comes with obligations. These first of all include the execution of research and all scholarly activities with utmost integrity.
The privilege of being a doctor also entails that society needs to be able to rely on the sound and independent judgment of those holding a doctorate.

This statement was only introduced in the past decade, but I think a reminder like this is a simple and effective idea. After all, it is a serious responsibility to have a PhD. Things proclaimed by people with a Dr. in front of their name are taken more seriously, whether we like it or not — whether they are correct or not.

Academic institutions hold the burden to uphold that integrity. This story, based on real events, showcases one instance of how that was done. This Story from my PhD is edited to focus on the events, not the people involved.

On a day like every other, I sat behind my computer and worked on statistical analyses, bantered on email, and created memes to make life fun. Every too often, I would get up to visit the vending machine overlooking the forest. This day would be interestingly different.

“Ping!” the email client chimed.

“We request you to fill in a declaration confirming your your commitment to academic integrity.”

It looked like it was an internal announcement and I confusedly asked my office mates whether they got this message as well.

“Lemme check…” they responded stoicly.

Before long, there was some chatter in the hallways. Everyone on our floor received this email. It would not take long to discover everyone on all floors, in all buildings received it.

“Acting with integrity is the foundation of sound and reliable academic practice. We greatly value compliance with these principles. You are expected to observe the Ethics Code and we request that you make a declaration confirming your commitment to academic integrity.”

People ended up giggling about this at lunch.

“Of course we are committed to integrity!” was the common feeling. Even those who may not have been committed would need to proclaim this now.

Most people signed, no matter how obvious it sounded. I did not sign it, thinking it was simply another bureaucratic shenanigan like so many, which would fizzle out with no consequences.

“Do this!”


“Because we say so.”

Is it ethical to justify things only because of the power to  be able to proclaim something needs to happen? It felt like a rather empty request.

During the following weeks, I heard more about this initiative by chance when I attended a talk on research integrity by a professor from my university.

“We are requiring all employees to sign a statement affirming their commitment to the Ethics Code” the professor proclaimed proudly and to my surprise.

After the talk, I found them sipping a coffee and asked: “Did you mean that, that it is a requirement?”

“I haven’t signed it yet and I was not aware it was required.”

“You understand that after recent events, we need to step up" the professor argued. "We need to make it clear that we do not tolerate unethical conduct.”

I nodded along as the dutiful PhD student is expected to when talking to a professor known to not be the most considerate to begin with.

“I strongly urge you to sign it, otherwise we may need to take steps. Most people already signed, so just come along. It may result in negative consequences if you don’t.”

The professor's words did not feel as urgent as they might have been intended.

Most people clicked the link, checked the box, and pressed submit. They declared their commitment to the Ethics Code. I cannot blame them — it is the path of least resistance. “Who am I to say no? I don’t want to have to deal with this” is a thought I have to constantly fight against.

I also supported the Ethics Code, but what was happening here was not a commitment. It was following orders. Weeks would pass with me not signing.

“A month ago we sent you a request to fill in a declaration confirming your commitment to academic integrity. You have not yet entered such confirmation. This possibly has slipped your mind. We kindly request you to take this action in the next two weeks” a follow up email told me.

Things came together when I read that email. Hours later, with some more research under my belt on (pan-)university policies and my own employment contract, I replied.

“Thanks for the reminder” I started off. “I don’t really understand why this explicit request is necessary, and why it is not communicated as a requirement if it is in fact required.”

“The Ethics Code itself states” I continued, “that all universities are bound by it. My employment contract also states this already. Declaring my commitment would result in the same situation as is already the case.”

I finished with an invitation. “I would like to talk about the origins and goals of this measure, so I can make an informed decision about what to do. Research ethics is a daily topic for me, as it is part of my specialization.”

This apparently was a reason to escalate.

“Legally an employee may not refuse a reasonable request from the employer, unless they’re looking for a problem in the employment relation, with the most severe consequence getting fired.”

“You say you support the Ethics Code. Can't you just sign it then?”

After some back and forth veiled by the spectre of getting fired and the accompanying stress for a PhD candidate, I received the answer I was looking for all along:

The Ethics Code is not well known. Signing a commitment declaring support for the Ethics Code provides legal certainty to fire somebody when necessary.

I am in favor of upholding integrity, yet this approach felt like it missed the mark. It felt like a bureaucrat's straightforward solution to a much more complex issue. Some might say, better than nothing — what does a commitment mean if it has to be made when the weight of an institution starts coming down on you, really?

This approach was a choice to solve a problem — and I wonder whether they actually did solve the problem in the end. It of course depends on the problem they defined at the start.