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The Ethics of Information: Meet ACS Fellow and Chemistry Librarian Judith Currano

Headshot of Judith Currano, a woman with short brown hair, wearing a bright blue blouse.

In 2006, a well-regarded chemist at Columbia University retracted a number of scientific papers after questions about the ethics and reproducibility of the related studies came to light. The incident sent shockwaves through the scientific community that soon reached Philadelphia. The Chemistry faculty at the University of Pennsylvania consequently decided that all graduate students would receive training in the ethics of research and information–and that head of the chemistry library Judith Currano would be the person to teach it. Over the last fifteen years, Currano’s ethics-related research and teaching efforts have expanded. For these contributions, as well as her devotion to teaching chemical information, last year she was elected to the American Chemistry Society’s (ACS) Fellows Program, which recognizes ACS members for “outstanding achievements in and contributions to science, the profession, and the Society.”

When people think about ethics in scientific research, they often imagine regulations related to using human or animal test subjects. Currano’s focus on the ethics of information is a little less tangible–but still exceptionally vital. “Within the [chemistry] department, most things to do with ethics and chemistry are related to publication,” she explains. “So what we’re dealing with is falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. And all of this happens once research has entered the publishing process.”

Sometimes graduate students come to her course having already had some experience with authoring or reviewing papers, and Currano notes that most PhD students in Penn’s chemistry department publish at least one paper before graduating. That means that the topics they discuss in class have immediate, real-world implications for students. 

Currano talks them through some of the most common issues of publications ethics using case studies. “One of our favorite conversation pieces is, who should be an author on a paper?” Currano says. Journal guidelines like those of the American Chemical Society dictate that anyone who made a “significant scientific contribution” to a study should be listed–but what counts as a “significant contribution”? Not even the journals themselves are in agreement. How, then, can scientists like the students in her class ensure that everyone is getting the credit they deserve? Given that publishing is necessary for career advancement, these questions have a significant ethical dimension with immediate consequences.

Ethical quandaries also come up when she is teaching students about how to retrieve chemical information, something she does as part of a graduate class on chemical information, and as part of undergraduate lab courses. Currano is very interested in teaching students at all levels to evaluate sources–to ask who is writing a journal article, and what their goals and motivations might be. For example, many students already understand that it’s a good idea to evaluate who funded a study before taking its results at face value. But bias can be more subtle as well. “Everyone thinks their work is the most exciting thing in the world. That’s why they’re doing it.” While there’s certainly nothing wrong with loving what you do, scientists have to ask themselves, is the author of this paper making their results sound more exciting than they actually are? Or are they ignoring data that might lead them to a different conclusion? These sorts of biases might not have been conscious, but they can still influence how someone writes a scientific paper.

Currano also sees advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion in chemistry as a matter of ethics. “Everyone should feel like they belong at work,” she observes, noting the ACS’s recent efforts to diversify the chemistry workforce. She is also concerned about the educational inequities that have arisen due to COVID-19. Like many educators, Currano has seen first-hand that students’ ability to learn relies heavily on the quality of their internet access. This is particularly a problem for chemistry students running searches, which often require high bandwidth; a search that would have taken a student 10 minutes to complete with high-speed Internet on campus might now take a student 5 hours or more. “Going online highlighted inequities that we were pretending weren’t there, and it was impossible to pretend anymore.”

Her appointment as an ACS fellow isn’t the first time that Currano has been recognized by the organization: in 2017, she was chosen to chair the ACS Committee on Ethics, and she had subsequently been invited by the organization to teach ethics to high school students from around the country. Many people in the Penn community also recognize her interest and expertise. “Now I’m one of the people in the department that people go to when they have an ethics question.”

Fifteen years after being asked to begin teaching ethics–a topic she knew little about at the time–Currano is more fascinated by the subject than ever. “It’s hard. And at the end of the day, I think it’s really, really important because we have to trust our literature, and we have to trust each other. If one of those two things can’t happen, then the entire scientific enterprise goes down the drain.” As she further noted in an article for Chemical & Engineering News in 2018, “Working together, I know that we can achieve a culture in which ethics permeates our every move."