Ethics in Research: An Interpretation of Watson

Throughout my life, I have been instructed to carefully follow ethical research standards whenever undertaking any academic assignment.  In middle school, I was introduced to the overly-simplistic scientific method, which, in addition to providing a rough outline for experimentation, provides instruction about allotting credit for ideas and data which you yourself did not develop.  In addition, during my years in college I have been bombarded with pleas from instructors and honor codes about avoiding plagiarism, which, in academic circles, appears to be an offense of the highest order.  If I have learned anything, it is that the ends do not justify the means in research; one cannot skirt across the ethical boundaries of research and expect to gain acclaim and praise for his or her efforts.

Well, unless your name is James Watson.  In The Double Helix, I was surprised to discover the specifics of Watson’s unethical methods for attaining information on the way to discovering the structure of DNA.  Sure, I had heard a rough outline of the story in biology classes, but hearing the tale from the horse’s mouth was eye-opening.  Despite his endnote on Rosalind Franklin, which apologizes for portraying the late scientist as callous and irritable, it is clear that Watson paints Franklin as stingy and unreasonable as an attempt to make readers empathize with him as he unknowingly views and interprets her information.  Watson reasons that, since Franklin is unable to view her data within the structure of the proper theoretical framework (helical structures), he should be permitted to interpret it for the greater good of science – and his personal ambition).  It is obvious that this line of thinking is flawed; can I steal a student’s textbook to study for an exam just because I am better at chemistry than he?  The answer is no.

The other troubling aspect of Watson’s attainment of Franklin’s data is the behavior of Rosalind’s supervisor, Maurice Wilkins.  He constantly complains that Franklin is hoarding information and that it is impossible to conduct any meaningful research in her company.  While these are legitimate concerns, they did not permit Wilkins to show Watson her data.  Maurice was entitled to see her data, as he was her employer, but he was not entitled to disseminate her research to other scientists.  We all know that Franklin did not receive a Nobel Prize for her efforts, and this is often justified by the fact that she died prior to the award’s dispersal.  However, we cannot forget the fact that Franklin did not formally receive credit for a scientific breakthrough to which she undoubtedly contributed.

Around the same time as Watson’s publication on the structure of DNA, the field of psychology was undergoing reformation due to serious ethical violations during human experimentation.  The solution to curtailing these unethical practices was the Institutional Review Board, which is now ubiquitous to all research institutions.  What appears to be the solution to Watson’s actions?  Emphasis of ethical research practices; MLA citations; annotated bibliographies; electronic submission databases.  Do these means correct past problems?  Of course not, but they have contributed to better research practices since their installment.  We can all learn from Watson… although it’s not if we actually have a choice in the matter.

~ Jeff

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~ by jsj1313 on March 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Ethics in Research: An Interpretation of Watson”

  1. You bring up a lot of really good points, and this is very interesting. I have two main comments.

    1. I personally took the ending a little differently. I thought his apology at the end was supposed to show that he now feels differently, but he wrote the book in a way to show his mindset back then. So when he paints her that way throughout the book, it’s to represent how he used to feel, not how he feels now. I thought he was drawing more attention to the fact that it was wrong. I don’t know though.. that was just the impression I got when I read it.

    2. I’m kind of confused about sharing data and information with people working in the same lab. Maurice can see and use her research since he runs the lab she works for, but didn’t Watson work for Maurice too? I could be remembering incorrectly.. but if he did, what prevents Maurice from sharing that with Watson? I don’t think sharing the information is necessarily bad as long as she gets proper credit, which she actually does. No one is trying to say Watson measured the data. He’s openly admitting she’s the one who found this out, but without him, the structure of DNA wouldn’t have been solved. Science is totally a collaborative field… it would be so hard for anyone to figure out all this stuff solo. Basically my point is that I think it’s really hard to draw the line on when it’s okay and when it’s not okay to share information.

  2. Wow, a little harsh on Watson! I don’t really think Watson was unethical in his research. And as far as sharing of research, Franklin worked for Wilkins so actually its considered Wilkins’ work; therefore, he technically can share this data as he sees fit. And I think Wilkins’ motives were mainly for the advancement of science.

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