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Life in the laboratory can seem increasingly rule-bound, especially in these high-security times. In studying what makes life scientists tick, some researchers suspect that the most important decisions fall into the gray areas between the rules, leaving scientists groping for guidance.

"If you were to go into a laboratory and just watch for a month ... you would probably find a whole culture governed by rules that are largely not written down at all," says Nick Steneck, a University of Michigan professor of history who was drafted as an expert on science ethics by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Finding the sources of unwritten rules is the purpose of a study funded recently by the ORI, the arm of the Department of Health and Human Services charged with overseeing scientific misconduct.

Study leader Karen Seashore, a professor of educational policy at the University of Minnesota, says she...

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