Guide To Ethics

Version 2022.1

The first key component of ethics in physics is telling the truth, which includes documenting and sharing research results and avoiding fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. The second key component of ethics is treating people well, which includes establishing fair and respectful relationships with colleagues, subordinates, and students that avoid abuse of power and explicit and

Implicit Bias

Unconscious and automatic attitudes or stereotypes about groups of people that impact one’s understanding of, actions toward, and decisions regarding individual members of such groups. For example, research shows that many people in the US, even those who consciously believe that all people are equal, implicitly have biases associating Black people with criminality and Asian people with being foreign, and not associating women with science. Implicit bias has measurable consequences in the world, with research demonstrating, for example, that people rate job applicants with names typically associated with women and/or people of color as less qualified than those with names typically associated with white men, and that students rate female instructors as less competent than male instructors. Everyone has implicit biases, and countering such biases requires explicit training and/or intervention strategies such as intergroup contact, perspective-taking, and exposure to counter-stereotypical exemplars. Review article

(APS Guidelines on Ethics). A third key component of ethics in physics is considering and engaging with the impact of physics on society. This section addresses how to (1) support a culture of ethical behavior in your department, (2) support a culture of ethical teaching and learning and include ethics in your curriculum, (3) support a culture of ethical research in your department, and (4) consider creating formal departmental ethics guidelines. Many aspects of how to treat people in your program well are discussed further in the sections on Departmental Culture and Climate; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; and How to Be an Effective Chair. For more on ethical teaching practices, see the section on Implementing Research-Based Instructional Practices. Attention to safety is also part of scientific ethics. For more on laboratory safety, see the section on Instructional Laboratories and Experimental Skills.


Ethics is a cornerstone of effective scientific practice and a productive and inclusive society. Ensuring that all physicists behave ethically maintains the integrity of physics as a discipline and supports public trust in physics and in science as a whole. Explicitly addressing ethics in your department can help ensure that your department is a welcoming place where everyone treats others appropriately, is supported in doing high-quality work, and acts as a responsible member of the physics community.

The Cycle of Reflection and Action

Effective Practices

Effective Practices

  1. Support a culture of ethical behavior in your department

  2. Support a culture of ethical teaching and learning and include ethics in your curriculum

  3. Support a culture of ethical research in your department

  4. Consider creating formal departmental ethics guidelines

Programmatic Assessments

Programmatic Assessments

Research indicates that scientific research integrity faces serious threats and suggests ways to address research misconduct [1]. Surveys of physicists suggest that physics culture has serious problems with treatment of subordinates [2] and sexual harassment [3], and that many departments do not have, do not educate their students about, or do not enforce professional ethics standards [2]. See the Evidence in the section on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for more research on unethical practices that differentially impact members of

Marginalized Groups

People of color and others with marginalized ethnicities, women and others who experience misogyny, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and others who have traditionally been marginalized in society and in physics. According to the TEAM-UP Report, marginalized groups are “groups of people defined by a common social identity who lack adequate social power or resources to design, build, or perpetuate social structures or institutions that reflect the centrality … of their identities, proclivities, and points of view. … They need not be underrepresented or numerical minorities, but often are.” We use the term marginalized groups, rather than minorities, underrepresented groups, or other commonly used terms, because people in these groups are not always minorities or underrepresented, and in order to convey that underrepresentation is the result of marginalization rather than a statistical accident. Another common term is minoritized groups. While we use this general term for brevity and readability, it is important to recognize that the many different groups encompassed by this term face different challenges and have different needs that should be addressed individually whenever possible, to learn the terms that people ask to be called, and to recognize that these terms may change over time.


  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Fostering Integrity in Research, The National Academies Press (2017).
  2. K. Kirby and F. A. Houle, “Ethics and the Welfare of the Physics Profession,” Physics Today 57(11), 42 (2004).
  3. L. M. Aycock, Z. Hazari, E. Brewe, K. B. H. Clancy, T. Hodapp, and R. M. Goertzen, “Sexual harassment reported by undergraduate female physicists,” Physical Review Physics Education Research 15, 010121 (2019).
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Nos. 1738311, 1747563, and 1821372. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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