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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

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?

Figure 1. Misconduct and other ethical problems . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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 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.

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.

Scientific Misconduct

Figure 2. Two types of scientific misconduct . . .Click to Enlarge ImageOverall, 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.

Figure 3. Reports of plagiarism . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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 Figure 4. Reports of falsifying . . .Click to Enlarge Imageengineering 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

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).

Other Misconduct

Figure 10. Nine types of Click to Enlarge Image

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.

Figure 11. Sexual harassment . . .Click to Enlarge Image Figure 12. Discrimination based on race . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Figure 13. Use of one's position . . .Click to Enlarge ImageSociology 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.

Figure 16. Failure to properly disclose commercial involvement . . .Click to Enlarge Image Figure 15. Reports of unauthorized use by faculty . . .Click to Enlarge Image Figure 14. Misuse of research funds . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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.

Figure 17. Ignoring university research policies . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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.

Figure 18. Reports of efforts of students . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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.

Figure 19. Cheating in coursework by graduate students . . .Click to Enlarge Image

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 colleagues' conduct?

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 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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