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A Hippocratic Oath for scientists?

I recently began graduate studies at the Institute of Medical Science (IMS), University of Toronto. IMS is the largest graduate unit in the Faculty of Medicine at the university and one of the largest graduate programs in Canada. The institute is highly focused on research and provides significant support for their students.

Karen Davis was the associate director of IMS for 3 years and spent 7 years prior to that as a graduate coordinator. She currently remains affiliated with various aspects of the institute. During her tenure, she co-authored the "Graduate Student Oath" in collaboration with Mary Seeman and with the assistance of Josie Chaman and Ori Rotstein at IMS. The purpose of the Oath is to highlight three key aspects of the graduate training program: community, professionalism and ethical conduct. The goal of the Oath is to teach students the value of social and moral responsibilities.

It states:

I, (NAME HERE), have entered the serious pursuit of new knowledge as a member of the community of graduate students at the University of Toronto.

I declare the following:

  • Pride: I solemnly declare my pride in belonging to the international community of research scholars.

  • Integrity: I promise never to allow financial gain, competitiveness, or ambition cloud my judgment in the conduct of ethical research and scholarship.

  • Pursuit: I will pursue knowledge and create knowledge for the greater good, but never to the detriment of colleagues, supervisors, research subjects or the international community of scholars of which I am now a member.

By pronouncing this Graduate Student Oath, I affirm my commitment to professional conduct and to abide by the principles of ethical conduct and research policies as set out by the University of Toronto.[1]

[1] Davis KD, Seeman MV, Chapman J, Rotstein OD. A graduate student oath. Science. 2008 Jun 20;320(5883):1587-8.

I asked Davis about the Oath and have provided the discussion below.

AAAS MemberCentral: What compelled you to introduce a graduate student oath at the Institute of Medical Science?
Karen Davis, Professor of Surgery at the University of Toronto and former Associate Director at the Institute of Medical Science: I had become quite concerned about the increase in academic misconduct cases, typically involving fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (FFP) at universities world-wide. Parallel to this was a growing problem of increased media attention of laissez-faire attitudes of high school students towards respect and honesty. This was attributed in part to the seemingly commonplace culture of "cheaters" in business, commerce, politics, sports and entertainment. I also sensed that most young science graduate students who had not trained in a medical profession did not yet feel themselves to be part of a true profession or community of scholars and so did not feel particularly bound by any strong set of rules or regulations.

AAAS MC: What are some of the key points emphasized in the oath?
Davis: The purpose of the oath is threefold — 1) to instill a sense of pride in belonging to local, national and international research communities, 2) to promote research and scholarly professionalism, and 3) to provide a framework for ethical conduct. Towards these goals, the Oath includes statements of Pride, Integrity, and Pursuit of knowledge.

Do you think that the graduate student oath has made an impact on those who pursue graduate education at your institution?
Davis: Yes. We conducted a formal survey a few years ago to broadly assess the attitudes of students a year after they participated in the Oath ceremony. I also regularly have informal conversations with students about their feelings about our Oath and other teachings and workshops concerning research integrity and ethics. Overall, I have been quite impressed at the very positive feedback from students. Also, as a former graduate coordinator of the IMS, I can also attest to the near complete elimination of major student misconduct cases in the five years since the introduction our Oath.

Do you know of any other institutions which have introduced a graduate student oath?
Davis: Yes. There are similar graduate student oaths for scientists at the University of Michigan, the Taiwan University College of Medicine, West Virginia University, McGill University, University of Paris, and Pennsylvania State University.

How has the graduate student oath been generally received?
There has also been interest from faculty at numerous universities who then developed their own programs (e.g., at McGill, University of Miami, University of Texas at Austin, Aalborg University, and Pennsylvania State University, among others). The general topic of graduate student oaths has also been debated extensively by the British government and also at NIH in the United States.

What do you think? Should life science graduate programs adopt an 'Oath' similar to the Hippocratic Oath?

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