A Fresh Start: What is good and what is bad? Solving ethical issues at the University: past and present. Part 2

Students and staff have different attitude to the ethical standards adopted at St Petersburg University. This is only natural, since we are all different. However, we have already seen situations when ethical problems become so hard to resolve that they become the questions of life and death. Two years ago, there was a resonant case in Japan. A young researcher became widely known due to scientific results published in world famous journals including Nature. Then, it was found out that she had falsified the data. Her co-author hanged himself to save his good name from shame. There were even rumours that he committed seppuku.

Part one

Vadim Perov, Associate Professor, Head of the Department of Ethics, Director of the academic programme ‘Applied Ethics’, told us about this case. Together, we are discussing a fresh start in terms of ethical issues at the University and considering resonant cases of ethical standard breach from the professional viewpoint.

Ethics, morals, morality

Before we move forward, let us find out what ethics is.

During the first lecture, I remind students about a famous poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky:

Tiny toddler told his Dad:

‘I am puzzled so!

What is good and what is bad?’ translated by Paddy Breslin

These are the questions that ethics gives answers to.  What is good? What is bad?

Then, we can be more specific, though brief: ‘Ethics is the knowledge and teaching about morality and morals’.  We can expand the definition: ‘Ethics is a philosophical science studying morality and morals as a form of public consciousness and as one of the most important forms of human life and activity.’

It should be noted that the words ‘morality’, ‘ethics’ and ‘nravstvennost’ (transliterated from Russian) entered the Russian language in different time periods and from different languages. The word ‘ethics’ has come from Ancient Greek (ἦθος, ethos – custom, character), ‘moral’ – from Latin (mores – generally accepted traditions), and ‘nravstvennost’ (transliterated from Russian) – from an Old Russian word denoting ‘character’. Although these are three different words, in most cases they are used synonymously.

Thus, using several words in a row in the phrase ‘moral and ethical norms’ would be semantically redundant.  I don’t like it as a professional. For example, if I come across the word combination ‘moral and ethical’ in students’ works, I pay their attention to the wrong choice of words.  This is the same as saying ‘legal and lawful standards’ or ‘social and public relations’.  We can separate these words and say ‘public relations’ and ‘social phenomena’. Thus, in our case, it should be enough to say ‘moral standards’ or ‘ethical standards’, which is confirmed by a recognised journal: ‘Denoting one and the same thing in origin and etymology, these terms acquire semantic variations in the history of culture. In particular, the established academic tradition understands “ethics” as a field of knowledge and “moral” as its topic. Such distinction has not preserved in public experience and live language to the present moment.  Thus, in the Russian language there are no set phrases, where the word ‘ethics’ and ‘moral’ would not be interchangeable, although there are semantic contexts, when the language instinct favours one or the other’ (Abdusalam Guseynov, Ethics//Ethics. Encyclopaedic Dictionary.  Gardarika. Moscow, 2001).

However, the notion of ‘professional ethics’ has two meanings. The first one refers to the practices and norms of conduct characteristic of a specific profession, while the second denotes a science and the knowledge of such norms.   Professional ethics also includes the ethics of research (academic ethics) and the ethics of education (pedagogical ethics).

When we talk about morals, we mean the rules of conduct adopted by a society that prescribe certain behaviour in certain situations.

What if a person breaks these standards? How does the society regulate that its members observe (or fail to observe) the adopted rules of conduct?

If we talk about general morals, sanctions can be informal and even internal (for example, bites of consciousness) or external (for example, public censure). However, in case of professional ethics, external sanctions have to be specified in a written form for them to be legitimate. This is done by means of publishing codes of corporate ethics.  The University Student and Staff Code of Conduct was developed by a special committee and approved by the Academic Council in 2016. The first version of the Code appeared in 2005 (The University Student and Staff Code of Conduct dated 3 October 2016). The committee was headed by Professor Gennady Bogomazov, Chair of the Collegium of Honorary Professors at St Petersburg University. I also took part in developing the text of the Code.

Currently, St Petersburg University has a committee on developing or amending the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct chaired by Alla Shaboltas, Dean of the Faculty of Psychology. Other committee members may have different ideas on this work, but I will share mine. I’d like to remind you that St Petersburg University has the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct that has existed and functioned in various versions for over ten years! It is not perfect and it is not something permanent. It can and it should change occasionally.  May be the time has come.

However, we should consider the most essential matters.  What exactly should be changed? Whom and to which extent does it fail to satisfy: administration, students or teachers?  What provisions have proved to be unsatisfactory? What paragraphs should be changed, eliminated or completed? What is the expected result: another version of the same document or a fundamentally new text?  May be the existing Code of Conduct needs commentaries?  What issues should be considered more closely? Maybe ethical issues of expanding remote education should be considered? Maybe the widely discussed issues of personal and sexual relations (recall the ‘amoral issue’ during the Soviet time) should be in focus? Or ethical problems of scientific publications?  And so on and so forth.

Currently, these questions have no definite answers and it is impossible to get them only through meetings of officials or discussions among the committee members.  In this regard, I support full-scale ethical research at St Petersburg University aimed at finding out ethical expectations of the University staff and students.  Without in-depth research, it would be impossible to answer the above-mentioned questions and draw a reliable document.  Obviously, such research requires time and resources.  However, the expected result will pay back.

As a way of another reminder, I’ll point out that St Petersburg University has not only the Code of Conduct, but also an acting Ethics Committee of the University’s Academic Councils. During the time of its existence, the Committee members have taken dozens of decisions and faced multiple difficulties when considering ethical enquiries and problems arising from applying the current Code of Conduct.  It’s hard to imagine that one can achieve a positive result in creating an ethical code without studying and analysing this experience. 

Everyone’s ethics is a bit different: some people are much stricter towards themselves and others, while others are much milder in this regard.  However, there is also universal ethics and rules of conduct adopted by a certain group of people. Since we are talking about professional corporate ethics, can the standards of conduct that work in one group (department, faculty, institute) differ from those of the University in general?

I agree, morals are personal. However, when a person decides to take up a certain occupation, he or she also takes a decision to observe the ethical norms of this profession. For example, the ethics of a teacher and a locksmith are somewhat different. Or if a person is going to become a judge, he or she should refuse from political activity, although participation in political activity refers to the constitutional rights of the Russian citizens.  Such people also experience significant restrictions in their personal life: they should carefully select, whom to communicate with, etc. In the same way, there is a certain view on the ethics of teachers and scientists.

As for the University staff and students, I would divide them based on interests and conduct, rather than based on subdivisions. I would identify three large groups: students, research and teaching staff and administrative personnel (administrative and managerial personnel and educational support staff). We understand that the interests and conduct of students differ from those of teachers.  The interests and conduct of administrative employees are different from those of the two above-mentioned groups.  For example, I will have a distinct style of behaviour with a colleague, a vice-rector, a subdivision head, dispatcher or a staff member of an academic office. Students also behave among each other in a way that differs from their interaction with a teacher.

The division into these groups corresponds to global practices. In the case of Russia, I know just one university (RUDN University) with three adopted codes of conduct: for students, research and teaching staff and administrative personnel (2008). There is a number of universities where draft versions of codes of conduct are under development, but not in operation.  Many such codes differ only in the name.  It looks like someone drafted a text and others copied it without any discussion.

Here’s another example. About five years ago, the Centre for Expert Advice at St Petersburg University received an enquiry from the Prosecutor's office.  A deputy of a local legislative assembly used a rude jargon term ‘inadequate Siege survivors’ (‘nedoblokadnik’) in a speech on a local TV channel.  The thing is that according to the law, for the person to be recognised as a citizen of Leningrad under the Siege, they should provide a certificate confirming that they had spent there a certain number of days.  If this period is at least one day less than required, this person cannot be recognised as a Siege survivor and may not be granted a relevant status and benefits. This is the case for one of my friends, a professor at St Petersburg.

The Prosecutor's office received a complaint on this deputy accusing her of violating the professional ethics standards.   We studied the Prosecutor's materials including the video and gave an expert conclusion: yes, the deputy behaved unethically. However, she did not violate any standards of professional ethics, since there are no standards specified in an approved code of conduct for the deputies of legislative assembly.  No such code exists as of today. They have a committee on deputy's ethics, but they deal only with violations of the regulation.

Do other legislative authority bodies have codes of conduct?

Such a code has been approved and is widely used in the State Duma.  There is also a model code of municipal and state officers (since 2011). It is replicated almost verbatim in all ministries.  There is a model code of a teacher (since 2014) approved by an order within the Ministry of Higher Education and Science aimed at all educational institutions including schools and universities.   In the summer of 2019, the Ministry of Education in the Russian Federation issued additional recommendations to this model code of a teacher in response to scandals around teachers’ behaviour in social networks.  

The recent version of the law ‘On education in the Russian Federation’ says that all educational institutions are obliged to have developed and approved standards of professional ethics.  If accused of violating the norms of ethics, the teacher has a right to have their case considered in detail, for which special structures should be created.

At our University, the Code of Conduct has long become a guide to action. The Ethics Committee follows the Code when taking its decision.  Do other Russian universities have such committees?

At Moscow State University, the Faculty of Philosophy including the Department of Ethics were put in charge of creating such a code. They developed it for over a year holding workshops, conferences, round tables, consulting with teachers of ethics at other universities, introducing multiple amendments, etc. However, eventually a different text was adopted almost without any discussion. Our Code of Conduct is minimalistic with only seven paragraphs, while the code of conduct at Moscow State University is very detailed similar to internal regulations and conduct instruction.  As far as I know, there is no Ethics Committee at Moscow State University or its activity is not that visible. 

Administrative measures based on the decisions by the Ethics Committee have been recognised in court (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 11 December 2017).

The Labour Code has an article that the employee of an educational organisation involved in educational activity can be dismissed for unethical conduct.  Who can take this decision? Only the Ethics Committee. Even the Rector cannot decide what conduct can be considered ethical or unethical.

In November 2017, an amendment was introduced into the By-laws of St Petersburg University. The functions of the Ethics Committee at St Petersburg University have been expanded: now the Committee can evaluate typical situations and take general decisions on the correspondence of specific facts and events to ethical and cultural traditions at St Petersburg University as well as universal ethical standards (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 27 November 2017).

I’m directly associate with it since I proposed the idea. It happened after the Ethics Committee declined my claim since I enquired not about the actions of a specific employee at the University, but about the essence of the issue in general. Later, this problem was resolved and currently it is possible to submit enquires on general issues.

However, there is one important detail: our Ethics Committee has no students among its members.

According to your classification, there are no administrative workers in it as well. Is it a problem? The issues related to the conduct of students and graduates (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 21 April 2015Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 10 November 2016) are considered at the meetings of the Ethics Committee with the same attention as the enquiries on the conduct of subdivision directors (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 29 April 2019), care and maintenance department managers (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 05 October 2016) or cleaners (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 27 June 2019).

In the legal sphere, law enforcement authorities are provided by the state government that ensure the legitimate nature of the decisions taken by them.  As for ethical issues, here the role of public opinion is very significant. The decisions of the Ethics Committee should not only be right, but they should be perceived by the society as such.   At the same time, some students are of the opinion that students’ interests are not represented in the Ethics Committee, although students take part in the Academic Council.

When the Ethics Committee discusses student-related issues, it invites representatives of the Student Council at St Petersburg University as a body authorised to represent students’ interests. In which direction can the activity of the Committee develop further, in your opinion?

Currently, the Ethics Committee has no regulations: no application consideration deadlines, no lists of people to be invited to the meetings, etc. This should be clarified.  There are no rules developed even by the Committee itself, which can and should be reflected in the decisions published by the Committee. This is one of the reasons why specific wording in the decisions may raise questions. Here’s the last example: a professor turned to the Ethics Committee due to a complaint from her student.  The Committee decided that both sides were wrong. However, only the last name of the professor was stated in the decision, while the students remained anonymous (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 27 January 2020). Why is it so? It was the professor who filed a complaint on the students and not vice versa.  If both sides violated ethical standards, why make this exception for students? Otherwise, everything should be anonymous.  Thus, we need regulations to avoid extra questions and doubts. I will emphasise that in this case, doubts refer to the form of the published decision and not to the decision itself.

Participants of the Rector’s meeting proposed that changes in the work of the Ethics Committee should be made: its decisions should come into force from the moment of taking the decision, rather than from the moment of declaring it at the meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 2 December 2019).

On the one hand, it is good and, on the other hand, this is a double-edged sword. The Ethics Committee imposes no sanctions in case of ethical standards violations. The Committee only takes the decision if a certain action is ethical or not and if the behaviour of a given employee corresponds to the University Code of Conduct or violates these norms. It is similar to the jury at court when the jurors just decide if the person is ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ without sentencing.  Same here: the decision on possible disciplinary measures is taken by administrative officers based on the decision of the Committee.  There were cases when disciplinary measures were not taken, although the Committee had concluded that the actions of the University student or staff were unethical.  Thus, the Committee takes decisions without considering possible sanctions.

Currently, after introducing the deadlines, the Ethics Committee members may start taking decisions with reservations. If they take a negative conclusion, the person can be punished and even dismissed. The Committee may lose its independence to some extent.

Is it possible to grade the action: this action is more ethical and that one is less ethical?

Probably, we could distinguish just a violation from severe violation. Is it necessary? No. We should take a much closer look at the practical application of these issues. An ethical norm is always a reaction to the existing problem.  There is a problem and there are ways of solving it. New standards require new procedures. This leads to another question: what problems can be solved by this gradation? If we find such problems, we can introduce this grading scale.

The Committee members do not determine a moral portrait of the person, but discuss his or her specific deed. Even if a person has done something unethical, it doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad person.  His actions are evaluated as opposed to him or her as a person.

Recent situations

Case 1

Let us consider some examples.  In 2015, during an entrance examination to a doctoral programme, a relative of one of the applicants was among the examination committee members (Minutes of the meeting with public held on 11 August 2015, Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 7 September 2015, section 4; and dated 16 November 2015, section 4).

In May 2019, you informed the administration that you had to hold an examination in one of the groups in the field of Philosophy, in which your daughter was a student. To prevent a conflict of interests, an independent committee was established to hold an examination for her (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 3 June 2019, section 5).

The first case with Professor Iurii Pashkus was considered at the meeting   of the Ethics Committee (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 21 September 2015). At first, I contacted the Academic Office regarding the examination in the group of my daughter. I told them that I assumed there was a conflict of interests. They could not respond immediately, although allegedly they contacted the lawyers. Then, I found the decision of the Ethics Committee saying that one should inform about the conflict of interests.   But whom? According to global practices, the conclusion on the presence or absence of such conflict should be given in a written form in response to the employee's enquiry. Eventually, it was resolved that a committee established for the occasion would hold the exam.  It was a good decision.

How did your daughter do at the exam?

She did well and received an ‘excellent’ grade. I was not worried about it at all. It was a matter of principle since the person cannot decide on their own if their actions contain a conflict of interest or not.  The administration should take the decision.  I gave lectures to multiple groups at a time including that of my daughter. There were other teachers who held workshops.   One of them could also hold the examination.  I was comfortable with any decision in advance.

Case 2

Here’s another example.  For decades, members of the Academic Councils at faculties and the University have run for a position or degree by taking part in competitions on receiving University awards, applying for state and agency awards, etc. They have also taken part in voting on all these issues.  In other words, they had their own additional voice when voting.

I know that in recent years, when holding competitions for positions at the University, there is a rule prohibiting the competition participant to take part in voting ‘for themselves’ (Voting for yourself?  We don’t do it...). This practice has been accepted as a procedure, so it's beyond discussion.

Although I don’t see any significant ethical issues here.  If elections take place at the meeting of the Department, only recommendations can be accepted.  The next step is the elections at the meeting of the Academic Council of the Faculty or St Petersburg University.  However, I don’t think we can say that the established practice has a clear ethical advantage.  We are talking about the adopted regulation.  It’s not obligatory for all adopted rules to be ethically significant.

Sometimes a standard can have legal and ethical nature at the same time.  For example, there is a commandment ‘don’t steal’ and the Criminal Code has relevant articles.   However, there is a debate about moral foundations of law. Legal standards do not always have ethical component.  For example, a notary has a specific document format.  Or it is written that a contract should be drawn in three copies. Is there an ethical component? They just decided so, while they could also decide in a different way.

What if we consider voting in the competition for a benefit?  For example, Academician Anatoly Rusanov said at a meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University that a team of authors directed by Nikita Kuznetsov, Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute of Philosophy at St Petersburg University, was one of the candidates for the Prize ‘For the educational and methodological work’.    The meeting of the permanent Committee on teaching methodology of the Academic Council at St Petersburg University was also headed by Nikita Kuznetsov, Deputy Chairperson of the Committee.  Academician Anatoly Rusanov asked if these actions had been legal and ethical. (Results of the meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University dated 23 December 2019, section ‘Discussion on ethical issues’)

Here the situation is different.  The competition for a prize is a single event in comparison to competitions for a position. The latter are held regularly being a part of the academic and research process.  Especially it refers to the chairperson.

For example, several years ago, a code of conduct for the jury at the ballroom dancing competitions was established in Russia.   Interestingly, the coaches of the participating pairs are among the jury members. This is the established tradition and no one is going to change it.  At the same time, one coach can have five of his or her pairs among the participants and another – just two.  The adopted code is aimed at avoiding potential conflicts of interests.  They agreed that such a problem exists and that all jurors do their best to avoid a conflict.  One of the functions of the code of conduct is to point at possible issues.  They could introduce the rules that could take all that into account.

In the case of competition for the prize, Nikita Kuznetsov was not supposed to take part in the meeting of the teaching methodology committee. Otherwise, it may raise doubts in the fair vote of the committee members and correctness of its recommendations.

Similar situations had happened before, for example, during the work of dissertation councils, when they used to be permanent. Why was it allowed? If there was a dissertation defence of a doctoral student, whose research supervisor was a chairperson or a secretary of the council, a different chairperson or secretary was appointed to this meeting.   At the same time, they remained the dissertation council members.   When the elections of the Department Head took place, the Institute Director or Dean of the Faculty led the meeting instead of me.  It was a rule.

In the same way, a different member of the teaching methodology committee could be a chairperson at that meeting instead of Nikita Kuznetsov, who could take part in it as a regular member and even vote.

Case 3

An administrative officer at the University was dismissed for ‘multiple failure to perform the duties without reasonable excuse’. The last drop was the decision of the Ethics Committee at St Petersburg University (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 29 April 2019): the worker’s conduct was declared incompatible with the high status of the University employee (at the work place, the worker beat a subordinate that was 17 years older) (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 2 December 2019).

It is quite evident that such a case should be considered by law enforcement authorities.  I’m not even sure that the Ethics Committee had to consider it.  However, it’s not a problem that they did.

The syllabus of the ‘Applied Ethics’ course includes a paragraph that we should use the materials of the Ethics Committee at the classes with students.  In particular, we considered the case of a courtyard cleaner (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 27 June 2019). Mass media made a stir that five professors were telling a cleaner what to do (‘What’s the fuss’: how five professors at St Petersburg University criticise courtyard cleaner Nikolai Boginich for offensive language and harassment ). If we are guided by the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct, it is equally valid for everyone including courtyard cleaners. There is no separate code for courtyard cleaners.

Case 4

There was another case: a University student beat another student to defend the reputation of a young lady. He was facing expulsion...

The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation has principles including the principle of justice specified in Article 6: ‘The punishment and other measures of criminal and legal nature imposed on the person that has committed a crime should be just and should correspond to the nature and degree of public danger of the crime, circumstances and personality of the delinquent.’  If we consider a fight to be a socially-dangerous act, the circumstances can be attenuating. For example, the person could be provoked by the other side’s actions or words. Taking into account the personality factory, it becomes clear that the student’s goal was not a fight, but restoration of justice.  He defended the good name of a young lady by means of a fight.  If the decision depended on me, most likely, I would declare him not guilty after detail consideration of the case.  However, I also accept that if the case had been considered in court, the student could have been legitimately convicted.  And it would be right as well.

There are a few cases associate with the ‘teacher – student’ relations.  Case No 1 (2015): Professor  Nikolai Kosovskii was released from the position of the Head of the Department of Informatics after the Ethics Committee declared his behaviour towards students unethical (Minutes of the Rector's meeting dated 29 June 2015, paragraph 2; dated 6 July 2015, paragraph 3). Case No 2 (2016): complaints of the master’s programme students on unethical conduct of the professor were examined.  The examination confirmed the information, but the case didn’t go to the Ethics Committee. The professor accepted his guilt and took the decision to leave (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 23 December 2019). What rules can be introduced here?

I will give you a simple example. A teacher holds an examination for a student in a classroom or at the department.  Her performance is weak and the teacher gives her a ‘fail’ grade. After that, she complains to the Academic Office that she received a ‘bad mark’ due to refusing the courtship of the teacher.  How can he defend his reputation?  Here’s the other side: a student insists on escorting the teacher to the bus stop.  What should she do?

In many international universities, these situations are described in codes of conduct. There is also a practice, especially in American universities, when a new teacher is given a list with all the warnings. Certain rules have to be observed to avoid sexual harassment accusations.  They are not complicated, but one should know, remember and follow them.  For example, a teacher should not approach a student of opposite sex closer than half a meter.  A teacher should avoid staying in a closed room alone with a student. If this is required, the door should stay open. It will help to avoid suspicions and accusations.

Does it make sense to create such a list for our teachers?

I think, it does. I will quote the code of professional conduct for lawyers that has had several versions since 2011. Article 18, paragraph 3 of that code states the following: ‘The lawyer that acted in accordance with the clarifications of the Council on applying the provisions of the present code cannot be imposed disciplinary actions.’ In other words, if a lawyer is in a complicated ethical situation, he or she has the right to turn to the disciplinary committee of the bar association.  Within a certain time period, the committee should give recommendations on further actions.  If the lawyer follows these recommendations, the bar association takes the responsibility on defending this lawyer from all arising claims.

The same holds good for the list under consideration. It is required to formulate the rules.  These are just recommendations as opposed to a disciplinary matrix. Some actions can be interpreted as unacceptable.  Although, if you follow the rules, you won’t be accused of sexual harassment.  The list should also be offered to teachers, students and administrative staff, both male and female.

Case 5

One of the claimants sent a claim to the Virtual Reception asking if administrative officers are allowed to perform audio and video recording of conversations with the workers without their consent.  Later, it was found that the worker records their conversations with administrative officers without warning the interlocutor (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 11 April 2016). Can students record classes and publish them online? Can teachers record their classes?

It is up to the teacher to allow for recording. When my students ask me if they can make an audio record of my lecture, I usually agree. One day, I came across the records of my lectures on the Internet.  I learnt about it by chance: a student from a different division approached me and said that he enjoyed my lectures.  He had not attended my classes as part of a curriculum and explained the way he found them.

However, there are other teachers who strictly oppose recording.   That is why I consider the issue of audio recording should be resolved by each teacher independently.  It may be related to possible mistakes in speech. When I prepare a text, I can read it several times adjusting and amending. A word spoken is past recalling.  Phrases are constructed on the spot and can be interpreted in different ways.  Some people consider that they won’t be honest enough with a recording microphone.  Nobody can guarantee that students will record only for themselves without publishing it anywhere. 

As for the recording for students, it is a different matter.  At the lecture, students mostly listen and their voices won't be heard in the recording.  In essence, the teacher records just his or her own speech. Even in case of a video recording, the camera is pointed at the teacher bypassing the students.  Then, the student’s permission is not required.  If anyone happened to be in the recording, they should be asked for permission to publish it. The ‘ethical-unethical’ situation emerges when someone’s rights are violated.

During the Olympiads for schoolchildren held by the University, some parents expressed disagreement to the photojournalists that were taking pictures in the classroom. As a result, it was decided that photo shooting could be performed only during the introductory lecture.   It was not allowed to take pictures while the students were performing the tasks.   Was it the right decision?

At some point, I worked in the admission committee. One day, I did not allow for TV cameramen to enter the classroom, where applicants were taking an entrance examination.  They were not happy about it, since they ‘needed a picture’ and they had a permission.  But I didn't allow them in. I explained that the applicants were already under a lot of stress. A camera would be just another stress factor and different people have different responses to the fact of being recorded.  If applicants fail the examination, they can always say that it happened due to a television cameraman.  It will be the reason for appeal.  It will be hard to justify ourselves, especially if the person has failed due to the lack of knowledge of the subject matter.    Thus, it is better to avoid such controversial situations.  As for television cameramen, they can shoot before and after the examination or outside the classroom.

The same holds good for sexual harassment. Maybe it was not the case.  However, it appeared as if it was.  Such situations should be avoided.

The issues of recording classes are also an issue of intellectual property rights...

Here’s an illustration of how complicated this issue might be.  Once I attended a professional development course held by two teachers in a row.  One of them complained that the other uses her slides. The course was taught with the help of the Blackboard programme and all materials automatically became available to everyone as the University property.  Formally, the other person could do it since it was a joint course and it was not specified who was teaching what.  Then, the other teacher presented the part previously taught by that woman. Initially, they were supposed to share the course in equal halves, but, eventually, he taught two thirds and she presented just one third.

Case 6

Here’s another example: several people worked in a chemical laboratory performing one research with the help of one microscope. They had common database, although each one studies their own thing. One of them published his part earlier than the other. As a result, the other person had difficulties with the dissertation defence, since the novelty of the research was compromised (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 22 June 2015, paragraph 1 ).

I will give a couple of examples before I give the answer. Recently, one of the forums on research ethics published a question for discussion.  A scholar considers that he is one of the most prominent specialists in a certain scientific field self-identifying as a pioneer in this sphere in Russia. One day, the same scholarly journal where he publishes his articles publishes an article by another scholar, in which there are no references to his works.    Another author presents himself as a pioneer in the same field in several publications.  A question arises: what should the first scholar do? Formally, no ‘plagiarism’ took place, since the other author published the results of his original research.

I think the answer is simple: if the first author has published the results first, he has a priority.

This is clear. However, he asks whom he should prove it to?  And the main question is if the other author has behaved in an ethical way.

The other author might not have even heard about the research of the first researcher.

It means that he is not an honest researcher.  At the preparatory stage, he had to study both Russian and international publications in this field.  These are the general rules in the world of science.  The task of the reviewer is also to check if the author knows the material in a given research field.

Here’s the second situation. A few years ago, together with a colleague of mine, a historian of culture, we travelled to another country. There we visited an archaeological site, where a thrilling archaeological discovery was made.   When giving us a tour of the place, a local researcher warned us that we were not allowed to take picture. He explained that if we took pictures, we could publish them in our article and then they would have to make reference to us.  They would have no other choice, since we would be the first ones to mention it.

Let’s come back to the first case.  If the second researcher publishes his results without knowing that this topic had previously been studied, he is not a qualified specialist.  In other words, his articles should not be published at all.

Then, this is a flaw of the reviewer, who should have noticed it, and the editor, who could have recalled that this topic had been previously covered by another author in their journal.

Any editorial office of a scholarly journal has ethical policy.  Claims of the kind should be disputed.  I just wanted to demonstrate how complicated the topic is.

Let’s go back to the chemists. The second chemist had problems with the dissertation defence since the novelty of the research was compromised.  At the same time, no one’s results were stolen and there was no plagiarism.  There is no reason for the issue to be considered under legal proceedings.   The dispute lies in the field of ethics: the first author did not consider the defence of the other inadvertently setting him down. This is an issue of relations within a research team.

Is there an editorial policy of publishing a disproof in the Science journal if a ‘mistake’ is noticed as in the case with a Japanese researcher?

In the recent years, the practice of retracting articles has been actively integrated. If falsified data is found in a published article, the next issue will contain a notice with the reasons of retracting a certain previously published article. In this case, the editorial office asks to remove all the references to this article and never quote it again. Two cases of such retracting have been widely publicised.  These articles are not referred to any more, although they are still discussed in the public space.

One article about vaccines leading to autism was published in one of the leading medical journals, The Lancet, in 1998. Anti-vaccination people still mention it, although the article was retracted long ago and the journal editorial team recognised it as anti-scientific. The second article about genetically modified corn leading to cancer in mice was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology in 2012. In that article, a French researcher falsified data.  However, the myth of genetically modified food causing cancer still exists.  Also, an article on scientific proof of homoeopathy was retracted from Antiviral Research Journal in 2019. In that publication, the term ‘homoeopathic’ was replaced with ‘release-active agents’.

Where are we going?

Ethical issues come into the spotlight at St Petersburg University. The University staff and students become more aware of their actions and their colleagues’ conduct. What is the path forward here?

There is the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct and it operates with all its advantages and disadvantages.  In the organisations where corporate codes of conduct are applied, there is a tradition of annual review of the ethical norms based on new practices. In the recent years, a number of issues requiring further clarification have accumulated at the University. The Code has to be completed, amended and adjusted based on the existing practices.

ETHICS COMMITTEE AT ST PETERSBURG UNIVERSITY