I do solemnly swear. . .

The Hippocratic Oath figures prominently in history and popular culture, especially television dramas. Physicians taking the pledge promise, among other things, to “first, do no harm”–a powerful statement of ethics. A few years ago, the Paris-based International Council for Science (ICSU) decided to investigate whether the global scientific community might benefit from having its own analog to the Hippocratic Oath.

As a first step, ICSU’s Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics in Science decided last year to conduct a broad review of existing codes among researchers. Vivian Weil described the project last month in San Francisco at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

Such voluntary codes of conduct are surprisingly common, she observes. They have diverse goals, such as avoiding data falsification, respecting diversity and creativity, protecting whistleblowers, preventing research contributions to warfare or environmental destruction, and avoiding legal liabilities.

The Center for Study of Ethics in the Profession that Weil heads at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago has already logged some 850 codes onto its Web site. However, most of IIT’s collection represents U.S. institutions. Looking for a more international cross-section, ICSU has put out feelers in Latin America, Africa, the Far East, and elsewhere.

To date, it has assembled 101 codes, including some from the IIT collection. Of these, 37 are international and 27 are from interdisciplinary groups. Some codes are labeled as pledges, others as oaths, manifestos, guidelines, or declarations. Their guiding principles also vary widely, from educational to aspirational–and even include regulatory ones.

By year’s end, Weil’s committee plans to compare the collected codes, determine what purpose each serves, and identify what they have in common.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News on Humans