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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

What Is an Ethical Problem?

For the analyses reported in this article, ethical problems were clustered into three categories used by the National Academy of Sciences "to delineate... behaviors in the research environment that require attention." Category 1, misconduct in science, includes "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism, in proposing, or reporting research." Category 2 includes questionable research practices, such as keeping poor research records or permitting honorary authorship. As the Academy report notes, although such practices "violate traditional values of the research enterprise and... may be detrimental to the research process," there is "neither broad agreement about [their] seriousness... nor any consensus on standards for behavior in such matters." The report's third category, "other misconduct," includes behavior such as sexual harassment and violations of government regulations, which may take place in a research context but "are clearly not unique to the conduct of science... [and] are subject to generally applicable legal and social penalties."

The student and the faculty surveys contained 13 identical items on misconduct, with two additional items on the faculty survey. The instructions for this section of the student questionnaire were: "In this program, have you observed or had other direct evidence of any of the following types of misconduct? Please indicate the number of graduate students and faculty members whose misconduct you have observed/experienced." To make faculty and student responses more comparable, the faculty questionnaire asked those surveyed to respond with reference to the department with which they are currently affiliated and with reference to misconduct observed within the past five years.

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