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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

Questionable Research Practices

Figure 5. Reports of four types of questionable research practices . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Across the disciplines, reports of questionable research practices are far more common than reports of outright misconduct. For example, 43 percent of faculty say they know of peers making inappropriate use of university resources for personal purposes, and almost one-third know of inappropriate assignment of authorship of research papers (Figure 5). Twenty-two percent of faculty report instances of their colleagues overlooking sloppy use of data, and 15 percent know of cases where data that would contradict an investigator's own previous research have not been presented. Although students reportedly engage in questionable research practices at somewhat lower rates than faculty, the data indicate that substantial numbers of both students and faculty have observed such practices by students.

The most significant Figure 6. Use of university resources . . .Click to Enlarge Imagedisciplinary differences in questionable research practices are in the use of university resources for outside consulting or other personal purposes (Figure 6) and in the inappropriate assignment of authorship (Figure 7). Among faculty, 61 percent of civil engineers have direct knowledge of their colleagues' inappropriate use of resources, and 44 percent report inappropriate assignment of authorship. According to student respondents, however, inappropriate assignment of authorship by faculty is most common in microbiology (38 percent).

Figure 7. Inappropriate assignment of authorship . . .Click to Enlarge Image

1993-11SwazeyF8.jpgClick to Enlarge Image

Disciplinary differences in overlooking others' use of flawed data or questionable interpretations are largely insignificant, except in the case of student reports of faculty behavior. Here, civil Figure 9. Failure to present data . . .Click to Enlarge Imageengineering students report significantly lower levels of these practices compared to other fields (Figure 8). With respect to failing to present data that contradict one's previous research, there are disciplinary differences among student, but not faculty, responses (Figure 9). More students in microbiology (21 percent) than in other fields report direct knowledge of this practice by faculty, whereas students in chemistry and microbiology report the highest levels of this practice by their peers (16 and 17 percent).

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