ACADEMICS USE "STRUCTURED SILENCE": QUESTIONABLE RESEARCH PRACTICES WIDESPREAD, NEW REPORT SAYS

From The Cancer Chronicles #19
© January 1994 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.

How widespread in science are such "questionable practices" as lying, cheating, or misappropriating resources? Defenders of orthodoxy claim they are rare. For example, the editor of Science, Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., once said that "99.9999 percent of reports are accurate and truthful."Those who have questioned such assertions have often been accused of being anti-science.

A report in American Scientist (Nov.-Dec. 1993), however, belies Dr. Koshland's "Ivory pure" statistic, for it shows in a rigorous way that serious misconduct is in fact widespread in mainstream American science. This pioneer report examines four disciplines, two of which--chemistry and microbiology--have strong ties to medicine.

The report was written by Dr. Judith P. Swazey, founder of the Acadia Institute in Maine, and two colleagues from the University of Minnesota. They surveyed 4,000 doctoral students and faculty members at 99 of the country's largest graduate departments. The survey covered 15 different types of ethically wrong or questionable behavior, including plagiarism, falsification of data, inappropriate assignment of authorship to research papers, use of university resources for personal purposes, misuse of research funds, as well as sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

The questionnaires sought to discover the rate of exposure to perceived misconduct. The authors asked respondents if they had personally observed or had other direct evidence of such misbehavior by their teachers or colleagues.

The researchers found that ethical problems are hardly limited to a few "bad apples," who buckle under pressure to "publish or perish."

"We found that 44 percent of students and 50 percent of faculty have been exposed to two or more types of misconduct and questionable research practices," the authors revealed. "The cumulative exposure of graduate students and faculty to what they define as ethically wrong or dubious behavior suggest that there are significant challenges to the integrity of academic science that reach directly in the research enterprise." Such problems are more pervasive than many insiders believe. The report explodes the myth that science can police itself: many of those surveyed reported that they have remained quiet out of fear of reprisals. The authors call such self-censorship by scientists "structured silence." Among the findings: * Between 6-9% reported direct knowledge of faculty plagiarizing or falsifying data.

  • A third of the faculty observed student plagiarism.
  • 20% of chemistry doctoral students reported the falsification of data by their peers.
  • Almost one-third reported inappropriate assignment of authorship of research papers.
  • 22% reported sloppy use of data, while 15% knew of cases in which data contradicting a professor's own work was not presented.
  • Many reported a failure by researchers to disclose involvement in companies whose products are based on faculty members' own research.
  • 20% of faculty members report that their peers ignored research rules involving human subjects, animals, or biosafety.
  • Most graduate students said they probably or definitely could not report misconduct by a faculty member without expecting retaliation.

"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 academic research communities to govern the conduct of their peers and students," the authors of the report concluded.

"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."

Incidentally, Science magazine turned down this groundbreaking paper for publication. Dr. Swazey called Dr. Koshland's attitude "part of the phenomenon we are studying....Are you going to say let's ignore [problems] and hope they go away?"


Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. is director of the The Moss Reports for cancer patients. Dr. Moss is the author of eleven books and three documentaries on cancer-related topics. He is or has been an advisor on alternative cancer treatments to the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the American Urological Association, Columbia University, the University of Texas, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the German Society of Oncology. He wrote the first article on alternative medicine for the Encyclopedia Britannica yearbook. He is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in the East, and Who's Who in Entertainment (as a film documentarian). This Web site does not advocate any particular treatment for cancer. We urge you to always seek competent medical advice for all health problems, especially cancer. Before consulting our site please read our full Disclaimer statement.



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