Publication Date

November 1, 2011

What are the ethical problems and issues that graduate students conducting historical research need to be aware of? Is it just a matter of guarding against plagiarism, or do the thornier problems with human-subjects research also pertain to historical scholarship? The expansion of research regulation into the social sciences and the humanities has had complex and not altogether positive consequences, particularly when standards and training designed for the treatment of human subjects in the medical and behavioral sciences are applied to historical research.1 Is it possible to provide an expansive—and historicized—view of research ethics? These were some of the critical issues and questions that we had to ponder as we began designing a course for graduate students at Princeton University on the ethics of conducting research.

The origin of "Responsible Conduct of Research" (RCR) education in the U.S. lies in the political repercussions of several alleged cases of scientific fraud, mostly in biology or medicine. In 1988 Representative John Dingell of Michigan led hearings on the prevalence of scientific misconduct in publicly funded research, focusing media attention on the issue. Among the many institutional reforms of federal research agencies that resulted from Dingell's inquiry, one targeted the education of scientists. Beginning in 1990, the National Institutes of Health as well as the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration specified that all graduate programs supported by these agencies' training grants must include instruction in "the principles of scientific integrity." Institutions were allowed to develop their own course formats and curricula to meet this educational requirement. Thus at Princeton University, as at most other research universities, RCR courses became a specific feature of graduate education in the biomedical sciences.2

After the 2008 election, the incoming Obama administration signaled its intention to expand the requirement for RCR education to graduate students supported by other federal agencies, beginning with the National Science Foundation. Princeton University's graduate school was proactive in its response to this anticipated change, viewing RCR as "a necessary investment in graduate students' personal and professional development as researchers."3 Rather than targeting fields most likely to be receiving federal training grants, the graduate school announced that it expected all departments in the social science, natural science, and engineering divisions of the university to develop RCR training for their graduate students. As directors of graduate study, we were charged with meeting the new mandate for our respective programs (the Department of History and the Program in History of Science).

We welcomed the university's RCR initiative, in part because we were given the freedom to design a course appropriate for historians, and one that could critically examine the emergence of regulation. We felt that a well-designed course could enhance student awareness of the ethical complexities of historical research; such training might even contribute to their marketability after completing their dissertation work. But there was no blueprint for providing RCR education for historians. There were more practical considerations as well: How could we induce our colleagues to staff the course, and provide them with resources to fulfill our expectations? We decided that the best way of achieving both the requirements of training and of optimizing faculty inputs was to involve a team of faculty, each offering guidance and expertise in a specific area.

Drawing our initial ideas from syllabi which colleagues in other social and natural science departments had already developed, we produced a stripped-down, intensive course which would last just two days and consist of eight separate modules, each taught by a different member of the departmental faculty. This course would be a compulsory element for all second-year students who had completed "generals" examinations successfully and were about to embark on the department's summer dissertation prospectus seminar. The prospectus seminar is a longstanding requirement of all post-generals students to help them develop the basic structure of their planned dissertation and outline their research strategy for the coming years. We folded the RCR course in with the prospectus seminar, under a single course code; conveniently the class hours added up to the 36 hours required of a usual graduate course.

Topics in our RCR course include standards of professional conduct in history; intellectual property, authorship, and patrimony; oral history and Princeton's human subjects regulations; public history; advising, sexual harassment, and other aspects of power relations in academe; plagiarism and attribution; conflicts of interest in historical work; and ethical issues in teaching.4 The aim of the syllabus was not to turn every graduate into an expert on each of the topics covered, but rather to introduce them to the various issues that might arise in the course of their research within these areas, and to point them to resources they could draw on in addressing emergent ethical problems down the road. As a result, each of the eight sections is self-standing, taught by a different member of faculty, and is focused on a small set of key readings which we made available online. The materials consist of readings from case studies, guidelines to federal, state, or university regulations, some analysis of legal proceedings, and excerpts of analytical and theoretical works dealing with ethics and research practice more generally. In some cases we focus on standards and rules set by the U.S. government or national professional bodies such as the AHA, but in other cases local regulations are more pertinent, particularly when it comes to sexual harassment policy and institutional research policy concerning human subjects.5

The course is supervised and managed each year by the two departmental directors of graduate studies (for the history and history of science programs respectively). They are responsible for maintaining the rotation of faculty volunteers and for ensuring that the syllabus is kept up-to-date. Initially, the reactions of our colleagues and our graduate students to this new requirement were less than enthusiastic. However, it quickly became apparent that the structure of the course on the one hand, and its content and teaching strategy on the other, could engage faculty and graduate students alike. After the first course in summer 2010, feedback collected from both graduates and faculty was quite positive, and the suggestions for improvement useful. Many students mentioned the value of readings on copyright permissions, stereotype threat (the underperformance elicited by making someone aware of their minority or subordinate status), and ethical issues that come up in teaching (such as dealing with student plagiarism). The course has been run successfully a second year, with a different set of volunteer faculty, and the department has been able to turn what was initially suspected to be an unnecessary additional burden on faculty and graduate students into a positive experience. As compliance becomes the new watchword in higher education, it is vitally important for historians to be aware of the research regulations at their institutions. We believe that RCR education can provide an important forum for providing such information, and for stimulating much-needed discussion on the diverse ethical issues that confront reflective historians.

Angela Creager is professor of history and in the history of science program at Princeton University. John Haldon is professor of history and Hellenic studies at Princeton University. They wish to acknowledge their gratitude to Michael Gordin and David Redman for their comments on an earlier version of this essay.


1. See Zachary M. Schrag, “Ethical Training for Oral Historians,”Perspectives, March 2007. See also, Robert B. Townsend, “Getting Free of the IRB: A Call to Action for Oral History,” Perspectives on History, 49:6 (September 2011), 9–10.

2. Nicholas H. Steneck and Ruth Ellen Bulger, “The History, Purpose, and Future of Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research,”Academic Medicine 82 (2007): 829–34.


4. The syllabus for the summer 2010 course is available on Princeton’s web site at

5. In general, Princeton does not require scholars conducting oral histories to obtain prior approval from its Institutional Review Board, but other universities do require such approval.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.