People are required to make numerous choices each day, many of which have ethical components. As individuals we judge our own actions, as well as the actions of others, according to some standard. Although there is not a rule book for decisions, we each use information from our upbringing, family values, cultures, religious views, geographical region, common sense, politics, society, and best judgment to decide what is right or wrong. As a general rule, anything that dehumanizes a person is unethical because human beings are conscious of their actions and employ free will in making choices. Many times questions are asked that provide a clear picture of how complex the topic of ethics may become, such as “Everyone knows
that_(lying, cheating, stealing, or similar) is unethical, so why
even talk about it?” or “Isn’t it unethical to judge the ethics of others?” or “My parents did a good job, so why should I learn things that I already know?” It is insufficient to assume that people develop personal ethics that always lead them to engage in ethical behavior; however, empathy for people in ethical dilemmas may encourage support and clarity of issues.
Although ethical judgments are based on individual opinion and there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer, some general guidelines may help:
- • Do not use misinformation to support claims.
- • Do not represent yourself as an expert if you are not.
- • Do not use misleading or unfounded reasoning.
- • Do not divert attention away from an issue.
- • Do not misuse people’s emotions by presenting topics that have little to do with the main idea.
- • Do not deceive people of your intentions, viewpoints, or purpose.
- • Do not hide potential consequences, positive or negative.
- • Do not oversimplify issues to convolute a point.
- • Do not advocate for things that you do not support.
The guidelines, while general, are a good place to start making decisions. Many times it is difficult for people to objectively view a situation and the potential consequences if they are too close to the situation. It is helpful when a person is as objective as possible or can receive input from an impartial person. Sensitivity to ethical decisions requires people to examine their behaviors, principles, and goals. Unethical situations occur, so it is important to examine the factors that lead to unethical behavior, the types of situations that become unethical, and the common pressures that cause people to make bad choices. It is stressed that everyone is human and all humans make mistakes, but it does not hurt to have an awareness of potential issues, how to avoid them, and how to manage problems that do occur, especially before the problems escalate. Specifically, professional organizations and agencies need to take an ethical stance, have a willingness to confront ethical problems, and maintain values indicative of organizational standards. Ethical role models in leadership positions encourage staff members to take responsibility for their actions, treat people fairly and with compassion, participate in open communication, and show respect to one another. This is not to say that leaders are exempt from ethical misconduct; however, they have the ability to influence the culture of a workplace. No matter how much a person knows, if the circumstances are right, anyone could make a bad decision. It is how the person handles the decision once it is made that determines if ethical lines are crossed, how far the situation is taken, who is impacted, and if redemption is possible.
Forensic scientists encounter many occupational hazards regarding ethical behavior. The positions within forensic science are complex and come with high stress and public trust. There is a great need for coping mechanisms due to being surrounded by crime and death. Forensic scientists have great social pressure in their profession that creates stress. There is potential for dishonesty due to the regular dealings with and privileged access to money, drugs, and weapons. Forensic scientists must constantly gain new knowledge to keep up with current problems. Though it is the scientists’ job to report findings, they may not have a say in how decision makers interpret and twist the facts that they provide. Forensic scientists must function within legal constraints while accepting ultimate responsibility for their conduct. Some professional duties of forensic scientists may challenge ethical performance—for example, obstacles created by lawyers selectively presenting evidence that only supports his or her case. Unfortunately, some selective bias is unavoidable and almost expected by the legal system. Selection bias is based on selecting a sample that has the most chance of supporting one’s opinion as opposed to a completely random population. Additional duties that present ethical issues are the duty to remain competent in a wide range of scientific fields with (often) limited resources; the duty to remain as objective as reasonably possible in the selection of samples, examinations, and the interpretation of results; the duty to work thoroughly and produce results and conclusions within the capabilities and limitations of science and themselves; and the duty to communicate openly (Lucas, 1989). Aside from all the factors mentioned, there is the responsibility and pressure to become familiar with the professional cultures that coexist with forensic science, which have been discussed. Considering the many factors that impact ethical decisions, it is not surprising that issues do occur.
The frequency of misconduct in science is very low compared with other professional cultures such as business, law, or medicine; however, misconduct still remains part of the profession. Though the examples of unethical behavior within science may not be numerous, what they lack in quantity they make up for in impact. Forensic science is work that could seriously impact people’s lives if not conducted with the utmost integrity. During the 17 years that he was on the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Ethics Committee, Doug Lucas states that more than 50 complaints were investigated and about half were eventually dismissed. Some examples of misconduct in science include lying, cheating, stealing, falsification, fabrication, plagiarism, defamation, misrepresentation, distortion, and deliberate deception. Falsification differs from fabrication in that the former involves tampering with evidence or results, whereas the latter involves actually making up the information. Is it ever ethical to lie? What if a lie spares someone’s feelings? What if the lie keeps a person out of harm’s way? More often than not, the misconduct starts on a small scale, such as a little white lie or a simple oversight, and intensifies with how it is handled. Issues of misconduct may arise because science is a cooperative activity within a large social and political context. It is also common that scientists may not agree with the standards set forth by the profession. Discipline-specific standards relating to error are important. There is a fine line between ethical and unethical practices, so it is imperative that scientists exercise scientific, practical, and moral judgment, and disclose any actual or potential conflicts.
In addition to some of the more common forms of misconduct, other types should be considered. The first, conflict of conscience, arises when a scientist with deeply held personal views is asked to review projects whose nature is offensive to his or her viewpoints. Basically, issues occur when the convictions of an individual are permitted to override scientific merit in reaching a decision. In health sciences, patient care constantly faces changing patterns of medical ethics regarding premature births, life support, pain control, and assisted suicide. Unlike conflicts of interest, conflicts of conscience do not involve personal gain or affect assigned duties. This conflict is also represented by the ambiguous boundary between inappropriate incentives and acceptable perks. For example, handouts or giveaways at meetings are routine, accepted, and typically expected, but expensive meals and gifts provided by vendors cross the line. As of now, there is no agreement on how to handle these conflicts, mostly because society is ever changing. Some agencies provide guidance in the form of standard guidelines in order to help reduce the gray area of this topic. Luckily, this type of conflict is not as prevalent in forensic science as it is in other fields, such as law enforcement.
Conflicts of effort, or conflicts of commitment, may arise when demands made by people other than the primary employer interfere with the performance of the employees’ assigned duties. Examples of this type of pressure include presenting lectures, serving on boards and panels, or teaching, all of which are usually encouraged activities. Scientists usually know how to prioritize responsibilities, but unscheduled tasks can put an added demand on people, especially if the tasks are agency mandated. Typically, the immediate supervisor is responsible for deployment of staff to other projects. Extra duties can become a serious issue when scientists are not available for their assigned tasks. Conflicts of effort frequently occur when scientists have for- profit businesses or the extreme ambition to gain acceptance within the field (i.e., are on many committees or consistently attend many professional meetings). Although people may say that some agencies send mixed messages by allowing one day per week for such extra tasks, it is an excellent way to alleviate conflicts. Time is allotted for extra tasks separate from one’s everyday tasks, which makes the situation much more workable. The scientific community presents many opportunities for excellence, which unfortunately contributes to the frequency of conflicts of effort as people try to build their credentials and accolades. Awareness and standards of conduct for such situations will lessen conflicts of effort.
Money tends to increase the occurrences of ethical misconduct. A person or a group that receives payment or benefits more than once for the same job and/or from the same organization is double-dipping. This conflict is one of the most common because people do not necessarily know that their salary is inclusive for all of the work they do, including research and sometimes teaching or presentations. In addition, if the scientists are paid from multiple sources, their total efforts from all projects cannot add up to more than 100%. This seems like common sense, but it is fairly routine that people, especially researchers, are funded from a variety of sources and may or may not know the breakdown. Compensation in forensic science mostly involves speaker and consultant fees. Speakers may require fees or honoraria and travel or lodging accommodations. Guidelines may vary between agencies, but scientists should understand the standard procedures of the agency before committing to the way they may think is best as well as seek approvals prior to the commitment. Consultant compensation is subject to approval by employers. Scientists must avoid not only conflicts of interest but also the mere appearance of conflicts of interest when employers are negotiating consulting contracts with private organizations on their behalf. It is every scientist’s personal responsibility to disclose consulting services to employers and to assure that conflicts of interest are not an issue.
The final type of unethical behavior is favoritism. Favoritism shown to experts, consultants, or editors occurs often. Reasons why one receives favoritism may include an easygoing personality, likeability by juries, minimal fees for service, willing to adjust results to support a theory, highly respected in the field, or simply being excellent at one’s job. Although favoritism is discussed as a positive aspect, it can very easily be described as partiality, which would indicate an unfair bias for or against someone. Favoritism shown to relatives or close friends, or nepotism, is a concern in any field. Business, politics, and entertainment create the highest frequency of nepotism complaints. Most professions have rules against nepotism to ensure fairness for potential employees. However, many people are actually in support of nepotism. The American Association of University Professors has called for the discontinuation of policies that prohibit professional opportunities for members of an immediate family. In the article “Nepotism Pays,” Ferrazzi (2004) states his belief that a person can create his or her own nepotism. It is about having three things: (1) superior access to people in power, (2) the deepest care and concern from people who could potentially speed another person to success, and (3) sufficient skill. Ferrazzi is making steps to change the negative connotation of nepotism; however, it is still considered a conflict of interest in science and research. Nepotism may occur in forensic science in a variety of ways. One example is if a higher ranking family member always gives higher priority or more interesting cases to a coworker that is a relative. Another example is demonstrated by relatives or friends getting assigned to the easier cases by higher ranking family members or friends. Although not as prevalent as other forms of misconduct, nepotism can and does occur. After having explored ways ethical misconduct occurs, let us now look at why issues may occur.