Ethical Problems in Academic Research
A survey of doctoral candidates and faculty raises important questions about the ethical environment of graduate education and research
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?
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.
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
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.
Interpreting the Data
Our surveys have relatively high response rates compared to those of
other efforts to study the various types of misconduct. Adjusted
response rates for graduate students and faculty were 72 percent and
59 percent, respectively. In addition, the degree of agreement
between faculty and student responses on most items reinforces the
reliability of our data. Some of the items on which student and
faculty observations are divergent reflect differences in
opportunities to observe misconduct. Faculty, for example, report
more knowledge of student plagiarism and cheating and more faculty
misuse of research funds and facilities, which probably reflects
faculty members' greater access to these types of information.
We have no reason to think that the data do not accurately reflect
the respondents' experiences, which may include self-reports of
their own activities. Nevertheless, we recognize the need for
several caveats in interpreting our findings. To begin with, we do
not know exactly how respondents defined the phrase "other
direct evidence" in the survey instructions. Second, since the
questionnaires did not ask the respondents to distinguish between
what they believed to be instances of misbehavior and cases that had
been confirmed by an official or unofficial type of investigation,
their responses should be viewed as "strongly suspected"
instances. A third important caveat bears repeating. Because it is
likely that more than one faculty or student respondent in a given
department reported the same incident in their questionnaires, one
cannot estimate from our data what percentage of faculty or graduate
students in a given department or in the four disciplines may be
engaging in a particular type of misconduct or questionable research
practice. Rather, growing out of the project's focus on the ways
that departments and disciplines affect the education and
socialization of graduate students, our objective was to document
the exposure of graduate students and faculty to what they believe
is ethically wrong or problematic conduct in their departments.
Overall, one can infer from our data that, although misconduct is
not rampant, examples of behavior that fall into the National
Academy’s definition of science-related misconduct (Category
1) are not rare. Between six and nine percent of both students and
faculty report that they have direct knowledge of faculty who have
plagiarized or falsified data (Figure 2). Faculty reports
of plagiarism and falsification by students are considerably higher;
nearly a third of faculty claim to have observed student plagiarism.
On a more positive note, most of those who reported examples of
plagiarism or falsification were aware of such misconduct by only
one or two people. At the same time, however, we believe there is
cause for concern in the finding that substantially higher
percentages of graduate students than faculty in all four
disciplines are believed to be engaging in these types of misconduct.
There were significant differences between disciplines in reported
knowledge of plagiarism (Figure 3). More than 40 percent of
faculty in civil engineering and sociology have detected plagiarism
among their graduate students. In civil engineering, 18 percent of
faculty have noted plagiarism by their colleagues, a significantly
higher proportion than in the other fields.
Exposure to data falsification (Figure 4) does not follow
a clear disciplinary pattern. At 10 percent, civil engineering
faculty report the highest level of "cooking" among their
colleagues, but 12 percent of microbiology students say that their
teachers have falsified data. Faculty report similar levels of
falsification among chemistry, civil engineering and microbiology
students, but sociologists report significantly less. Among the
students, chemistry doctoral students note the greatest exposure to
falsification by their peers (20 percent).
Questionable Research Practices
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
disciplinary 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).
Disciplinary differences in overlooking others' use of flawed data
or questionable interpretations of data are largely insignificant,
except in the case of student reports of faculty behavior. Here,
civil engineering 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).
In the experience of both faculty and students, there are serious
issues that are not directly research-related but still involve
unethical and, in some cases, possibly illegal behaviors The reports
of conduct that involves unethical treatment of peers and
subordinates by faculty are striking. Approximately one-half of
students and faculty, for example, say they have observed or have
other direct knowledge of faculty exploiting others (Figure
10), and almost one-quarter of both groups have direct
knowledge of sexual harassment. Although fewer students than faculty
identify instances of faculty trying to get by on the work of
others, students report substantially more discrimination by faculty
on the basis of personal characteristics.
Sociology stands out in terms of
both faculty and student exposure to three forms of interpersonal
misconduct (Figures 11, 12 and 13). High proportions of
sociology faculty report that their colleagues have engaged in
sexual harassment (40 percent), have discriminated based on race,
ethnicity or gender (32 percent), or have used their positions to
exploit or manipulate others (57 percent). Sociology students report
even higher levels of exposure to discrimination (55 percent) and
exploitation (60 percent) by faculty.
Three types of abuses of a researcher's position for personal
financial gain or professional advantage also are included in the
category of "other misconduct": misusing research funds
(Figure 14), unauthorized use of privileged information
(Figure 15) and failing to disclose involvement in
firms whose products are based on the faculty member's own research
(Figure 16). Between 7 and 23 percent of both faculty
and students have first-hand information about each of these abuses
by faculty. Differences between sociology and other fields are
apparent for these three items, but in this case sociology faculty
and students are less likely to observe misconduct.
Compliance with research regulations involving human subjects,
animal care and use, and biosafety also appears to be problematic
(Figure 17). Almost 20 percent of faculty have direct
knowledge of their peers ignoring such policies, with even more
students observing misconduct in this area by other students.
Microbiologists, both faculty and students, are most frequently
exposed to peers who ignore university research policies.
Chemistry graduate students demonstrate a particularly noticeable
disciplinary difference in reported exposure to attempts to get by
on the work of others (Figure 18). Although only 16 percent
say they have seen this behavior in faculty—the lowest
percentage of any group of respondents—48 percent say they
have seen it among their peers. From a faculty perspective, civil
engineering students and faculty most frequently try to get by on
others' work—53 percent have seen such behavior by their students.
The final type of misconduct included in the surveys is cheating in
coursework by graduate students (Figure 19). Not
surprisingly, faculty know of more instances of such misbehavior
than do students. Among the four disciplines, the highest levels of
cheating are identified by both students and faculty in civil engineering.
Dealing with Misconduct
The ways in which suspected misconduct and other ethical problems
are dealt with at the departmental or institutional level are
crucial to the integrity of research and scholarship, and they may
help shape the values, the attitudes and the behaviors of trainees.
Two sets of findings from our surveys bear on these matters: faculty
and student expectations of retaliation for reporting suspected
misconduct, and the extent to which faculty believe they should and
actually do exercise a collective responsibility for the
professional-ethical conduct of their colleagues and students.
To gauge expectations about the consequences of
"whistle-blowing," we asked students and faculty:
"Could you report cases of suspected misconduct (a) by a
faculty member [or] (b) by a graduate student in your department
without expecting retaliation?" Not surprisingly, given the
greater vulnerability of people in subordinate positions in
organizations, a much greater percentage of students than faculty
believe they would experience retaliation if they reported suspected
misconduct by either a faculty member or another student.
Fifty-three percent of the students compared to 26 percent of the
faculty said they probably or definitely could not report a faculty
member without expecting retaliation. Students feel less vulnerable
at the prospect of reporting another student, but a substantial
number (29 percent) believe this act, too, would likely result in
retaliation. Faculty clearly feel it is far safer to report
suspected misconduct by a graduate student than by a colleague.
Nonetheless, only 60 percent of the faculty believe they could
definitely report a graduate student suspected of misconduct without
experiencing retaliation, whereas just 35 percent believe that they
could definitely report another faculty member with impunity.
Differences in responses across disciplines are significant for
faculty and for students reporting misconduct by other students.
Chemistry faculty are more certain than faculty in other disciplines
that they could report suspected misconduct without retaliation,
whereas civil engineering faculty and students indicate the greatest
concern about sanctions.
We also looked at concerns about whistleblowing in relationship to a
respondent's citizenship and race. Faculty who are U.S. citizens and
also members of a minority group are more likely to expect
retaliation for reporting either a faculty member or a student than
are either white U.S. faculty or non-U.S. citizens. Among students,
a greater percentage of foreign nationals than of white or minority
U.S. citizens would expect retaliation for reporting either a
faculty member or a student.
We expected that junior faculty would be less confident than senior
faculty about reporting a colleague. This was confirmed by
cross-tabulations between faculty members' willingness to report
suspected misconduct by other faculty and their appointment status.
Forty-three percent of the full professors believed they definitely
could report suspected misconduct by colleagues without expecting
retaliation, whereas only 18 percent of assistant professors were
equally confident. The responses of the associate professors were
closer to those of the assistant professors than they were to those
of the full professors, suggesting that the sense of vulnerability
is not simply a question of tenure.
These findings about the relationship between academic appointment
status and expectations about sanctions for reporting suspected
misconduct have some sobering implications, because the current
demography of the academic profession is highly skewed toward senior
faculty. In our sample, for example, 61 percent of the respondents
are full professors. As demographics change—older professors
retire and are replaced with junior faculty who have learned to be
cautious about taking an active role in governing scholarly and
research standards and conduct—there may be an increase in
reluctance to confront misconduct. Unless promotion and higher
status alter faculty views and behavior, or there are changes in the
culture of the academy that make such confrontation less
threatening, willingness to report misconduct may decline.
We also looked at the relationship between faculty members' exposure
to misconduct and their confidence that they could report without
retaliation. Those who have been exposed to instances of scientific
misconduct or questionable research practices among their peers, and
thus have had a real opportunity to confront their obligations and
willingness to report suspected wrongdoing, are more likely to
believe that they would suffer retaliation.
The extent to which faculty accept a collective as well as an
individual professional responsibility for their colleagues' and
students' conduct is another aspect of a department’s ethical
climate that may affect how suspected wrongdoing or questionable
practices are handled. Respondents to the faculty survey were asked
to indicate the extent to which they believe that faculty in their
academic and research community should exercise a "collective
responsibility for the professional-ethical conduct" of their
peers and their graduate students, and the extent to which faculty
in their department actually manifest such behavior.
Faculty report striking differences between their espoused values
and the actual practice in their departments. In principle,
virtually all faculty (99 percent) believe they and their colleagues
should exercise at least some degree of collective responsibility
for the conduct of their graduate students. A smaller but still
substantial 74 percent believe they should exercise such a
responsibility to a great extent, but only 27 percent judge that
they and their departmental colleagues actually manifest to a great
extent their shared responsibility for their students’
professional-ethical conduct. Chemistry and microbiology faculty
feel more strongly than civil engineers and sociologists that they
have a collective responsibility for their students’ conduct,
whereas chemists judge that they actually exercise the greatest
amount of collective responsibility, and sociologists judge that
they exercise the least. Almost all faculty (94 percent) also
believe that they have some degree of responsibility for their
colleagues’ ethical conduct, but only 55 percent hold this
belief to a great extent. In terms of actual behavior, however, just
13 percent judge that faculty in their department exercise a great
deal of shared responsibility for their colleagues' conduct, whereas
30 percent hold that there is very little or no manifestation of
collegial responsibility. Looking at disciplinary differences, a
substantially smaller percentage of chemists than faculty in the
other three fields believe they have a strong degree of collective
responsibility for their peers' behavior.
Environments that foster expectations of retaliation, coupled with
low levels of exercised collective responsibility for the conduct of
colleagues and students, raise grave concerns about the willingness
and ability of members of academic research communities to govern
the conduct of their peers and students. Many observers of higher
education have affirmed the importance of both professional autonomy
and collective or group regulation of the academic enterprise.
Burton Clark has written that "the culture of the [academic]
profession everywhere emphasizes personal autonomy and collegial
self-government." Our survey data, and statements by faculty
and graduate students whom we have interviewed, challenge the idea
that faculty actually practice an ethic of collective governance.
Disciplinary and Departmental Factors
The sometimes striking differences in responses across disciplines
are a particularly challenging aspect of our findings. If scientists
and engineers are serious about efforts to ensure the integrity of
research, it is important to understand why we found pronounced
variations in reported instances of scientific misconduct. For
example, over 40 percent of faculty in civil engineering and
sociology have encountered plagiarism by their graduate students; a
higher percent of faculty in civil engineering than in other fields
report knowledge of plagiarism and data falsification by their
colleagues; microbiology students report more data falsification by
faculty than do students in the other disciplines; and chemistry
students report the greatest amount of data falsification by their peers.
These patterns do not support the "bad apple" explanation
that is often proffered to account for scientific misconduct. In the
case of faculty, disciplinary variations also call into question the
generic explanation that scientific misconduct is primarily
attributable to the intense pressures in research-intensive
universities to obtain funding and to "publish or perish."
Faculty reports of higher rates of plagiarism by graduate students
in civil engineering and sociology may suggest that faculty in those
fields have more experience with evaluating student work compared to
faculty in chemistry and microbiology. In any event, the significant
rate of reported student plagiarism points to the role faculty need
to play in instructing even graduate students about appropriate
attribution standards. However, our data do not support the view
that faculty have the greatest difficulty in this area of
scholarship with foreign students, who may not be as knowledgeable
as U.S. students about attribution standards: In our sample,
although civil engineering does have the greatest number of foreign
students (46 percent), sociology has the fewest (17 percent).
To pose another discipline-related question, why does sociology have
the highest proportion of reported exposure to sexual harassment and
racial, ethnic or gender discrimination in every reporting category?
The answer does not reside solely, if at all, in the gender,
citizenship or racial composition of the departments in our sample.
Although sociology does have the highest percentage of female
faculty (45 percent) and students (55 percent), microbiology’s
percentages are nearly as high (32 and 45 percent respectively); yet
the reports of harassment and discrimination are high in one field
and relatively low in the other. With respect to citizenship,
sociology has the lowest percentage of both faculty and students who
are foreign nationals. Nor can the higher levels of reported
knowledge of racial discrimination be accounted for by a
significantly higher percentage of minority students and faculty.
For example, although sociology has the highest percentage of U.S.
minority students in our sample (11 percent), microbiology has
almost as many (9 percent).
Disciplinary variations, both in expectations about the consequences
of reporting suspected misconduct and in faculty’s views about
their shared responsibility for the ethical conduct of their
students and colleagues, are also important for understanding the
ethical environment in graduate training and research. Why, for
example, are chemistry faculty more certain than faculty in civil
engineering, microbiology and sociology that they could report
suspected wrongdoing without retaliation? Why, conversely, are civil
engineering faculty and students more certain they would experience
sanctions? In terms of professional self-regulation, why do
chemistry and microbiology faculty believe more strongly than their
counterparts in civil engineering that they have a collective
responsibility for their students' ethical conduct? What accounts
for the fact that chemistry faculty believe they exercise such a
responsibility to a greater extent than do faculty in the other
three disciplines, or that sociology faculty believe they exercise
the least amount? And why, when their appraisals reflect a high
degree of collective responsibility for their students, do chemistry
faculty believe more strongly than faculty in the other three
disciplines that they bear little responsibility for their
Our larger body of survey data, as well as in-depth interviews
conducted with faculty and graduate students, indicate that
understanding the nature of disciplines and departments will help to
explain why certain types of ethical problems take place more
frequently in some fields and graduate programs than in others and
will, in turn, suggest strategies to address these problems. In
addition to the specialized knowledge and techniques that
distinguish them, academic disciplines have distinctive
cultures—that is, particular beliefs, norms, values, and
patterns of work and interpersonal interaction that affect the
behavior of individuals within the discipline. Thus, for example,
one could look not only at the importance that different fields give
to various types of misconduct or questionable practices, but also
at what opportunities are provided by the nature of the research
training and research work.
The department is the local embodiment of a discipline, and the
climate of a department—that is, the psychologically important
aspects of the work environment—also affects the activities
and attitudes of its members. For example, we found that in highly
competitive departments—those in which students have to
compete for departmental resources as well as faculty time and
attention—graduate students are significantly more likely to
observe research and other types of misconduct by their peers and
faculty. When we considered only survey items referring to research
policies, misuse of university or research funds and trying to get
by on the work of others—what might be called employment
misconduct—we found that such misconduct is significantly more
likely to be observed by graduate students in departments whose
faculty and students collaborate on publications. Faculty members'
observations of misconduct are also linked with climate factors. In
departments whose members put their own interests first, compete for
resources and are in continual conflict, faculty witness
significantly more misconduct. The preferential treatment of some
students has the same effect on faculty observations of misconduct.
These types of findings suggest that attention to the quality of a
department's climate and structure—which have many alterable
dimensions—should be an important component of preventive or
remedial strategies to deal with misbehavior.
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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