Ethical Problems in Academic Research
A survey of doctoral candidates and faculty raises important questions about the ethical environment of graduate education and research
This article originally appeared in the November–December 1993
issue of American Scientist.
Misconduct and other ethical problems in university-based research
have been widely discussed, but the result is still wide
disagreement. Disparate opinions appear to place the extent and the
significance of such impropriety somewhere between minuscule and
monstrous. Yet quantitative information on which to base such
opinions has been sparse.
Furthermore, much of the debate about misconduct has concerned its
impact on the public's impression of science. When questions are
asked about the effects of misconduct, they often include: Have the
media overemphasized such problems? Have reports—merited or
not—influenced public funding of scientific research? Does the
public believe in the integrity of science?
By comparison, the effect of misconduct on the academic environment
itself has received minimal attention. A faculty member's behavior
may have a significant influence on the formation of a student's
values and standards. Yet, despite the likelihood that numerous
examples of misconduct—some serious—escape the public
eye but are readily apparent to those close at hand, commentary
rarely concentrates on the exposure of students to questionable behavior.
There is also little information about the comparative prevalence of
ethical problems in the various academic disciplines. Once again, we
would likely be misled to think that the rate at which problems are
publicly reported represents their actual frequency. Students in
different disciplines may be exposed to different numbers and types
of ethical problems.
Equally important, graduate students may receive subtle messages
about ethics from the university's willingness, or lack of it, to
undergo self-examination. If a student or faculty member appears to
misbehave, does another student or faculty member who dares to
report it face reprisal?
To answer these and other questions about the research environment
in doctoral programs, the Acadia Institute Project on Professional
Values and Ethical Issues in the Graduate Education of Scientists
and Engineers, with grant support from the National Science
Foundation, surveyed 2,000 doctoral candidates and 2,000 of their
faculty about their experiences with 15 different types of ethically
questionable behavior. We sampled doctoral students and faculty from
99 of the largest graduate departments in chemistry, civil
engineering, microbiology and sociology.
Although our results do not measure the actual frequency of
misconduct—instead, our questionnaires sought rates of
exposure to perceived misconduct—they do
demonstrate that such problems are more pervasive than many insiders
believe. We also found significant differences among disciplines in
the frequency and the types of questionable behavior observed.
Furthermore, students and faculty who responded to our survey were
guaranteed anonymity. Without that promise, their responses suggest,
it is likely that a significant number would have remained silent
about their perceptions of misconduct.