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Research Crimes, Misdemeanors, and Tolerated Deceptions

Dr. Mark Alfino

Initially, it is hard to see how to categorize various cases of research misconduct. When lab scientists intentionally alter experimental results, we have an instance of willful fraud which we quite reasonably take as evidence of a character flaw. Given our tendency to see ethical lapses in terms of character flaws, I think many of us try to assimilate other cases of misconduct to this kind. But consider the wide range of cases -- the now infamous ceramics scholar, Professor John Quentin Feller, who confessed to stealing over 100 ceramic pieces from various museums; famous social science experiments like the Zimbardo experiment or the Milgram obedience to authority experiments, which are now seen as violating research ethics concerning the treatment of human subjects in psychological experiments; institutional practices in publication and review which favor or exclude researchers for reasons not related to merit;(1) fraudulent or deceptive representations of degrees, publications, and other honors by academics and public figures.

We could think of each of these cases as a failure of personal moral character, but we do not gain genuine understanding of many of these cases until we try to explain how easily individuals with good reputations for moral character acquiesce in or unconsciously tolerate misconduct. Why do highly respected scholars, many of whom enjoy unfettered access to valuable artifacts, steal from museums and library collections? One research library leader, Ellen S. Dunlap, president of the American Antiquarian Society, a research library in Worcester, Massachusetts thinks scholars rationalize museum theft by thinking of their work as undervalued and insufficiently compensated.(2) This seems like a good initial intuition, but it also pushes the question further back: Why do relatively well paid scholars whose work and expenses are often supported by outside funding sources, feel undervalued? To answer this question, we will find ourselves looking at both the institutional practices which produce and groom these scholars, as well as the immediate institutional context of their work. We will almost always be justified in saying that their character failed, but deeper insights into the causes of that failure will only be found in an investigation of the moral climate of role-specific behaviors and the institutions which support them.

More subtle cases of research misconduct involve experiments in which many of the researchers fail to notice either ethical lapses or defects in experiment design which might lead to the publication of unreliable data or knowledge. An excellent recent example of this kind of misconduct is the so called Carnegie Mellon Smut Study, which attempted to determine the prevalence of pornography on the Internet by secretly monitoring thousands of campus users of the Internet. While the principal researcher was a student, faculty supervisors failed to raise ethical concerns about the monitoring (indeed some still defend it), and since the study's publication, statistics experts have raised questions about the study design that call its conclusion (that the majority of images exchanged by USENET users are pornographic) into question.(3) The case is especially important since the research report became public during congressional discussion of telecommunications industry legislation this past summer. Within a short span of time, the study figured in a front page Time magazine article, an edition of "Nightline," and was entered into the Congressional Record.(4) Not only did journalistic standards fail to authenticate the integrity of the study, but the Georgetown Law Review, which published the article, was apparently unable to discover its flaws during review, due in part to an unusual publication agreement.

The investigation of the this case by Carnegie Mellon is still underway, so it would be premature to draw too many conclusions. Some of the faculty named in the study as advisors claim never to have seen a final draft of it, which might suggest fraudulent misrepresentation on the part of the student/author. At least one faculty member found no ethical problem with the surreptitious monitoring since, he argued, users of the campus network are apparently supposed to know that the computing environment is "open." One of the interesting features of this case is that the one faculty member who raised questions about the study during its production and distribution was excluded from it, thereby preventing him from playing any helpful role in remedying its flaws.

Much academic research is conducted and review by a small number of professional practitioners before it is published for the larger academic community. Perhaps it is impractical for every detail of a complex project to be checked and rechecked by its reviewers. But I suspect that in many cases, including this one, lapses in judgement occur because the way we organize the research "production process" provides insufficient opportunity for collective deliberation about research standards. Even though this case probably involves specific individual moral failures, it is nonetheless true that stopping research misconduct is a group responsibility that cannot effectively be satisfied by a series of informal individual checks.

The last category of misconduct I want to discuss is even more subtle than failures of collective responsibility in research supervision and shows in even greater relief the limits of a "character based" approach to thinking about research misconduct. I have in mind the practices of academics in the representation of their accomplishments on curriculum vitae. If this doesn't initially seem like a case of "research misconduct" remember that these documents play a crucial role in applications for research opportunities, promotion within a research community, and the representation of oneself as a researcher to the public.

It is common practice to list publication data in bibliographic form on curriculum vitae without much additional information about the selectivity of the journal, whether the publication was the result of blind review, or whether a book publication included an agreement to purchase copies for classroom use. When research communities were smaller, it may have been easier to distinguish the relative significance of various publications because more members of the academic community could be familiar with journals and presses in various fields. Now professors knowingly submit publication records to university wide faculty committees which are unlikely to be able to spot vanity publication or determine the relative importance of different publications. Some of this ambiguity is resolved by supporting documents from third parties, but much more responsibility should be taken by faculty themselves. Many journals publish statistics on their acceptance rates, their use of blind review and other practices which reflect on the standing of the publication. As electronic publication and self-publication become more practical and common, measures like these will be crucial to maintaining integrity in research communities.

The range of research misconduct cases is wide, and the temptation to treat them as isolated cases of moral failure is great. But the more we look at the circumstances which attend these failures of character, the more easily we can see their roots in organizational practices which escalate the pressure to distort values and misrepresent accomplishments. Professor Feller's ceramics thefts are surely in a different league than the careless supervision of a student researcher or the resume "padder" who reports as a book publication a text he has agreed to make his students purchase, but they all inhabit a world of distorted values. A world in which our sense of our professional status, the nonchalance of our colleagues and our institutions all help us convince ourselves of the justice of our misrepresentations.

Dr. Mark Alfino

Department of Philosophy

Gonzaga University

Spokane, WA 99258

1. Gordon Moran and Michael Mallory, "Some Ethical Considerations Regarding Scholarly Communication," Library Trends, 40.2 (Fall 1991): 338-356.

2. William Honan, "Strip Search Before Scholarship," The New York Times, May 28, 1995, E4.

3. For a comprehensive collection of documents relating to this controversy and the broader "Cyberporn Debate" see the web site with this title at http://www2000.ogsm.vanderbilt.edu/.

4. Peter H. Lewis, "Computer Smut Study Prompts New Concerns," The New York Times,