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Ethical Problems in Academic Research

A survey of doctoral candidates and faculty raises important questions about the ethical environment of graduate education and research

Judith Swazey, Melissa Anderson, Karen Louis

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?

Figure 1. Misconduct and other ethical problems . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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.

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