Ethical Problems in Academic Research
A survey of doctoral candidates and faculty raises important questions about the ethical environment of graduate education and research
Conclusions and Reflections
Our findings indicate that scientific misconduct, as narrowly
defined to include plagiarism and data falsification, takes place
less frequently than other types of ethically wrong or questionable
behavior by faculty and graduate students in the four disciplines
that we surveyed. At the same time, however, exposure to plagiarism
and data falsification is not extremely rare. Also, the data show
clearly that substantial numbers of students and faculty are
encountering other types of misconduct and a variety of questionable
A point needs to be emphasized about these findings: Because
respondents reported direct experience with each type of misconduct
separately, the data presented in the figures do not reflect a
faculty member's or student's cumulative exposure to ethical
problems. When we accumulate reports of all types of misconduct and
questionable research practices by faculty and students, we find
that 44 percent of students and 50 percent of faculty have been
exposed to two or more types. The cumulative exposure of graduate
students and faculty to what they define as ethically wrong or
dubious behavior suggests that there are significant challenges to
the integrity of academic science that reach directly into the
research enterprise. The pervasiveness of these experiences is
greater than would be predicted by those who focus on the dramatic
but rare instances that are publicly reported and acted on.
Although we favor restrictive official definitions of scientific
misconduct with respect to federal regulations and government
involvement in investigating and adjudicating alleged incidents, our
findings underscore the importance of not confining concerns about
standards and conduct to fraud, falsification and plagiarism.
Because science and engineering are human endeavors, it is unlikely
that we ever can design a fail-safe system that will prevent all
scientific and other forms of misconduct. As other analyses of our
data concerning the effects of departmental structure and climate
suggest, however, it should be possible to alter some of the
institutional conditions that make misconduct more likely to happen,
and to improve the ways in which both suspected and verified
misconduct are handled. The science, social-science and engineering
communities also need to develop a consensus on the seriousness of
questionable research practices and articulate explicit standards
for acceptable behavior regarding these practices.
Serious and ongoing attention to the values, ethical standards and
actions connected with misconduct, and to what should constitute
proper standards for various research practices, are crucial tasks.
As Walter Massey, former director of the National Science
Foundation, has stated, "Few things are more damaging to the
scientific enterprise than falsehoods—be they the result of
error, self-deception, sloppiness and haste, or, in the worst case,
dishonesty. It is the paradox of research that the reliance on truth
is both the source of modern science and engineering’s
enduring resilience and its intrinsic fragility."
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