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
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
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
"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?"
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