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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

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 research practices.

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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