This module is a resource for lecturers  


A.  Case studies for professional ethics


Case study 1

After discovering that one of her students tweeted foul language about her, a school teacher confronted the teenager during a lesson on social media etiquette. Inquiring why the student would post such hurtful messages that could harm the teacher's reputation, the student replied that she was upset at the time. The teacher responded that she was very upset by the student's actions. The teacher demanded a public apology in front of the class, and the student apologized. The teacher later stated that she would not allow young brats to call her those names.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Was the student behaviour wrong, and if yes, why? Next, what are the teacher's goals in this situation? How should the teacher have addressed the misbehaviour? Should the teacher have excused the student's action, or taken a different approach? If the teacher's actions are wrong, why is that? Is cyberbullying different from face to face bullying, and if yes, how? How should teachers as a profession treat student misbehaviour like this? Should teachers have a standard that they should follow, or should they be allowed to exercise their discretion?

This case study is based on " Cyber Harassment", available with videos, discussion questions and more.


Case study 2

A research team from a prominent laboratory published an article in a prestigious academic journal. It was considered a breakthrough paper that answered a major question in a scientific field. Papers produced in a laboratory normally list many people in the laboratory as authors, but the first named author is the primary person responsible for the paper. The first author of this paper was a postdoctoral researcher, working under her supervisor at the time. After the researcher left for another job, other researchers in the laboratory were unable to repeat the results following exactly the same methods. The supervisor, suspecting possible scientific misconduct, requested that the researcher return to the laboratory to redo her experiments and confirm the authenticity of her results, but she declined. An institutional investigation into the experiment concluded that there was no conclusive evidence that the results were actually achieved, but also that there was no conclusive evidence of misconduct or fabrication. The article was retracted without the researcher's agreement. The retraction damaged the researcher's career and reputation in the scientific community.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Did the researcher have an obligation to return to the laboratory to repeat the results? Why or why not? The decision to retract the article was based on two factors: the absence of records corroborating the researcher's results and the laboratory's inability to repeat the results. Are those the right standards to use? Assume there were four authors on the paper, including the researcher and the supervisor. Should the supervisor and the other authors also share responsibility for the retraction, and if yes on what basis?

This case study is based on " Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig", available with videos, discussion questions and more.


Case study 3

In 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, accidentally released large amounts of toxic gas. According to the magazine The Atlantic, "gases stayed low to the ground, causing victims' throats and eyes to burn, inducing nausea, and many deaths", and "estimates of the death toll vary from as few as 3,800 to as many as 16,000, but government figures now refer to an estimate of 15,000 killed over the years" (article available here). The catastrophic chemical leak and the subsequent deaths, injuries, environmental damage, and claims, has generated extensive commentary and teaching tools, which lecturers should consult when considering use of this case study. For a succinct summary and discussion questions regarding ethics for a variety of professions, lecturers can review these case materials. Lecturers can also consult Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro's Five Past Midnight in Bhopal (2002) translated from French by Kathryn Spink (London: Scribner).

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. Assume that the safety regulations that were in force in India were lower than the same kind of regulations that existed in the United States, where the parent company, Union Carbide, was based . Is it ethical to apply different standards at the India plant based on lower legal requirements? Assume that the local and national government in India has maintenance and upkeep obligations that are not being fully carried out. What ethical issues does that raise for employees in the India plant, and for the U.S.-based parent company? Does it relieve the parent Union Carbide of ethical responsibility? Assume that it was widely understood that persons should not be living in close proximity to the plant, but that there is no affordable housing within a reasonable commuting distance, and so a large community had set up temporary housing around the India plant. There are no company or legal regulations telling plant employees how to deal with persons living in close proximity to the plant. What ethical obligations does the plant have to this community? If the plant needs a large workforce, and the surrounding community needs jobs, how should the plant resolve this situation? Should it police the area around the plant, or build housing and commuting facilities for workers?

These questions are based on case materials available here.


Case study 4

A professor needing funding for her medical research on the causes and cures for a disease accepted a large, multi-year grant from a pharmaceutical company. The research tested the efficacy of medicines currently on the market, including a medicine produced by the pharmaceutical company. The research results suggested that the pharmaceutical company's medicine did have a positive effect, but the research also contained some ambiguous data that could be interpreted as demonstrating that the medicine has a negative side effect on some patients. As a condition of the grant, the professor was required to submit a preliminary draft of the report to the pharmaceutical company, for review and feedback. The professor submitted the report as required, and the pharmaceutical company wrote back to ask whether the professor would consider deleting the ambiguous data, as it may reflect badly on the pharmaceutical company and it is not strong data to begin with. The professor has reached the end of the grant funding, and to continue the research would need to get additional funding, with one obvious source of funding being the pharmaceutical company.

Lecturer Guidelines

Use the following questions to guide student discussion of the case. What ethical goals guide a medical researcher's profession? Does the professor have any ethical obligation to patients who might experience a negative side effect? Assuming that one ethical goal in medical research is to produce unbiased research, what should the professor do in this situation and why? Is the professor in a conflict of interest, and if yes, exactly what is the conflict or conflicts? Can the professor ignore what seems to be a conflict of interest, and just adopt the principle that any ambiguous data in this research can be deleted? Should the professor have taken the grant, knowing that the research would have to be submitted for review by the pharmaceutical company? In order to continue doing the research, which seems like a benefit to society, could the professor delete the ambiguous data from the current report, and then try to pursue that data in the next round of research?

The lecturer can note that the prevention of conflicts of interest is recommended by the United Nations Convention against Corruption as a means for increasing integrity in both the public and private sectors. For a definition and overview of the concept of conflict of interest, lectures can see pages xiii-xviii in the Asian Development Bank's publication on Mananging Conflict of Interest (2007). For an extensive treatment of conflicts of interest in medical research, lecturers can consult the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' publication on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice (2009). For more general resources on bioethics, lecturers can consult UNESCO's Bioethics Core Curriculum.

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