Science Policy & Funding Editors' Vox

Ethics Crucial for the Future of the Geosciences

A new AGU Special Publication provides a policy and practice overview of where we are and where we need to be regarding scientific integrity and ethics in the geosciences.


As the headlines of the past few years have shown, scientific integrity and ethics in the geosciences are not dead boring topics. In fact, an open and engaged dialogue on scientific integrity and ethics aimed squarely at our research practices and the challenges of the Anthropocene is precisely what’s needed now. From the systemic sexual harassment that is marginalizing women and minorities in science, to the devastating effects of climate change on energy, food, and safety, the decisions we make as individuals and as a scientific community matter on a global scale.

Generally, scientific integrity focuses on the behavior of the individual scientist and includes such things as standards of professional behavior and knowledge, how to maintain the integrity of the scientific process, and rules regarding peer review and publications. Ethics underpins scientific integrity but is broader and includes the moral decisions we make regarding how we undertake science and the application of the scientific advancements we make. Ethics in science includes our responsibilities to society and our behavior and interactions with both the scientific community and the public.

Professional ethics codes are well established in the medical, biological and engineering fields, but the geosciences have lagged behind. We are all familiar with some of the dilemmas of bioethics, for example the ethics of cloning and designing human genetics, but what are the ethical challenges in the geosciences that we must address? In the last few years, the field of geoethics has emerged and is garnering significant attention through the focused efforts of several organizations, in particular the International Association for Promoting Geoethics. Climate change, famine, alternative energy, hazard vulnerability, and environmental health are just some of the issues addressed by geoethics.

The newly released AGU Special Publication Scientific Integrity and Ethics in the Geosciences tackles today’s ethical issues in research misconduct, presents the latest policies and codes for scientific integrity, examines publications and data ethics, discusses the emerging field of geoethics, and provides practical guidance and hands-on resources for teaching ethics within the geoscience curriculum and research environment.

The first section of the book presents the wave of new scientific integrity and ethics policies released since 2010, internationally, nationally, and federally. This includes the seminal Singapore Statement on Research Integrity that forms the core of AGU’s ethics policy and the just released National Academy of Sciences report Fostering Integrity in Research. These policies and others discussed in the book, are distinguished by traditional values of honesty and integrity and include new emphases on fairness, equity, and research stewardship.

The second section of the book focuses on the responsibility of professional societies in nurturing an ethically sound research and educational climate. These chapters explore who we are and who we need to be professionally, including the ground-breaking new policy from AGU that considers harassment, discrimination and bullying as part of research misconduct.

Section three examines publications and data. It lays bare the many challenges we have in peer review and publication along with some of the innovative solutions being implemented by the geosciences publications community. The ethics of the scientific process and research data lifecycle are discussed in depth and checklists of ethical questions are provided for planning, executing, publishing and communicating science.

The role of the geosciences as an ethical force in society is explored in section four which examines the concepts of value and the emerging field of geoethics. As geoscientists we need a strong ethical foundation and rigorous open dialogue as we are increasingly asked to apply our science to issues of risk, vulnerability, and sustainability.

The last section and the appendices of the book provide extensive research, discussion, and resources on best practices for teaching scientific integrity, ethics, and geoethics. Imbedding scientific integrity and ethics in our curriculum is essential for the future of the geosciences and for sound, science based decision-making on the future of Earth.

Scientific Integrity and Ethics in the Geosciences, 2017, 344 pp., ISBN: 978-1-119-06778-8, list price $99.95 (hardcover), $79.99 (e-book)

—Linda Gundersen, Editor, Scientific Integrity and Ethics in the Geosciences

  • Boris

    The ethics is a meaningful thing for scientist.
    I think that the first question to answer is about an involvement in politics.
    There is no way for scientist from science to any application, however there is the only way to apply science – one has to study scientific results and then use them for any of existing needs.

  • attitude_check

    The first and most important ethical issue for a science organization is ethical implementation of the scientific discipline; of this first and foremost is the organizational commitment to follow the science wherever it leads — regardless of the personal or organizational political or policy desires. The focus on the enforcing logical and procedural rigor and reasonableness no matter where the results may be (desired or not) is a close corollary. Finally embracing all science viewpoints that meet the scientific logic and procedure ideals – regardless of the conclusions of the scientists is imperative. Embracing iconoclasts that do good science even if highly controversial is necessary for a healthy robust science community. Continual and intentional fight to prevent the very necessary peer-review process from turning into a scientific group-think echo-chamber is needed in order to actually implement an ethical scientific discipline.

  • I find it interesting that the AGU is lecturing about professional behavior and moral conduct. AGU long accepted money from ExxonMobil, even while that corporation was engaged in a campaign to undermine climate science, a discipline which falls under the purview of the AGU. Shouldn’t AGU clean up its own house? AGU is no longer receiving money from ExxonMobil, but that’s because the company quit giving it to them, not because they refused to accept it. Which begs the question, even after all of this, would AGU still be willing to accept fossil fuel money, even though accepting that money would be counter to proper professional behavior and moral conduct? Maybe it’s time for the AGU Board to state categorically they will henceforth refuse any donations from any company that acts counter to the scientific principles a professional union should be adhering to.

  • Brannon Andersen

    Book looks great, but if you really want to make a difference with young scientists make it free. Maybe not the book itself, but reduce the core ideas to a pamphlet that can be used in the classroom and undergraduate research setting as a promoter of discussion. I’m afraid a $100 book will collect dust in the library.

    • Bora Ön

      I totally agree with Andersen. Funny to be ethical at the price of 100$ 🙂