This was originally posted October 4, 2007.
Many academic honor codes boil down to two essential statements, namely "I will not cheat and I will not tolerate those who do". For "cheat" you may read any number of disreputable activities including plagiarism and research fraud. My alma mater had this sort of thing, I know the US military academies have this. Interestingly a random Google brings up some which include both components (Davidson College, Notre Dames, Florida State Univ (which as been in the academic cheating news lately), and some which do not (CU Boulder, Baylor); Wikipedia entry has a bunch of snippet Honor Codes. The first component, i.e. "don't cheat" is easily comprehended and followed. The second component, the " I will not tolerate those who do" part is the tricky one.
Discussions of academic honesty and science ethics abound on Adventures in Ethics and Science (here, here., here, and especially relevant here) and on Medical Writing, Editing and Grantsmanship (here, here, here). Click the relevant post categories on each site because they each have plenty more on the topic. Open Reading Frame taps into this with a "should be shunned" prescription (here and here). Some points made in the posts and much ensuing discussion circle around questions of how do we improve research ethics. Meaning not just how do we act personally but what needs to be done on a broader scale to improve (some might say "clean up") science. In some ways it comes down to otherwise good actors failing to step up to the plate on the "I will not tolerate" aspect of the internal Honor Code. Recent discussions with colleagues indicating that their local institutions have the "will not tolerate" component enshrined in their ethics statements for research faculty and staff makes this even more interesting. In the cases with which I am most familiar (my alma mater and one service academy) one can be equally culpable for "tolerating" as "cheating"...in theory. In practice of course I doubt this really holds up but it is a good point to ponder.
I will state baldly that in my opinion while the vast majority of scientist subscribe to the "I will not cheat" part, it is a high number who are a bit shaky on the "I will not tolerate those that do" front. In this I include myself, however not so much in that I've had to make an actual hard decision as yet. Rather because I suspect it would take a very high level of proof and inescapable responsibility for me to want to launch an ethics probe. We'll get to that. My evidence? All the people who say things like this "Well, I don't believe the data from that lab (in that paper, grant, etc)". Or all those of you who gossip about suspiciously good / successful postdocs in your lab or collaborating labs. You know who you are! This kind of stuff is perhaps not rampant but common enough. In most of these cases, it remains at the level of gossip or, at best, an oblique reference in a conference presentation or paper. If you say it, you must believe it. And if you believe it and don't report it to the appropriate investigating authority, well, you are tolerating it. Are you not?
So why? No great shocker there. Because it is very rare that the case is clear cut enough or the evidence so readily available as to make it a slam dunk. And usually there is little immediate and personal "cost" involved, just because someone in your field, institution or lab is faking data doesn't necessarily affect your career after all. Yet if you decide to blow a whistle there will definitely be a cost, potentially severe depending on whether this pisses off your superiors (PI, Senior colleagues, Dean, etc). And if a case fails to be made by the appropriate authorities? Might as well kiss your career goodbye. Nobody but nobody is going to give props to someone who appears to be a little too overeager to enforce science ethics.
I hope you didn't think I was going to have any solutions. I'm just seeking them...