Repost: An Honor Codes' Second Component and Research Science

Aug 12 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

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" 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...

12 responses so far

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    What if you're in a public space and you look over some random stranger's shoulder and see what totally looks like a scientist faking data on their laptop? You've never even heard of them before, but based on what you see them doing on their laptop and your geographic location you easily identify who they are and where they work, as a very senior and prominent PI.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    What if you're in a public space and you look over some random stranger's shoulder and see what totally looks like a scientist faking data on their laptop?

    Grab the nearest object that can be used as an improvised weapon and kill them immediately. Sure, you'll go to jail, but it's for the good of the profession. So you should be willing to take the hit for the team.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What kind of cheater is stupid enough to do it where someone can see???? That is seriously messed up.

    Maybe it was just "placeholder" figures?

  • physioprof says:

    I happened to look over this dude's shoulder and I see the fucker is just typing numbers into a spreadsheet off the top of his head, plotting a bar graph and running an ANOVA, and then editing the numbers and re-running it. He iteratively massaged this spreadsheet in this way for about ten minutes, and then pasted the final version of the bar graph with significance "stars" into a multi-panel figure. Just to be clear: He was typing and then editing numbers into a spreadsheet that represent data values that were averaged for a bar graph and analyzed by ANOVA, and I never saw any copy-pasting of raw data or him looking at raw data. He was just typing numbers in off the top of his head. And once I got a sense for what was going on, I never looked away the whole time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ear piece to his audio player? Google glasses? Braille? Really good memory?

  • DJMH says:

    At first I thought you were posting a weird hypothetical but you're serious?? That is crazy, crazy shit.

    Be careful where you run your trial fake ANOVAs, cheaters!!

  • physioprof says:

    Anything is possible, but it sure looked fishy to me. He did actually have earphones on connected to his phone. The bars kept changing height and then he was finished and put it into the multipanel figure.

  • DJMH says:

    The multipanel figure makes it pretty bad. I was thinking *maybe* that he could be doing some sort of assessment of how many N he would need for an upcoming study given different amounts of variability--isn't that a thing the statisticians tell us to do?--but it's hard to reconcile with plunking it all into a figure.

    Well just track his pubs to see if this figure shows up in one in the future. If so, I would call someone. From a disposable phone that I'd purchased with cash.

  • dsks says:

    "Well just track his pubs to see if this figure shows up in one in the future."

    More likely the data will show up in a grant, and then magically disappear or be replaced by the real data once the funding comes in.

  • Dude was working on an R01 competing renewal.

  • SidVic says:

    Seems to me that everybody here is overly shocked that this goes on.... Put a guy in soft money position and tell em that they have to publish 4-8 papers a year and get 0.5 grants funded which all else being equal comes to 5 applications per annum. The alternative is jobless at 50 with few marketable skills (lets face it the average biochemist is not able to hang a shingle on main street and get many customers). The bottle neck assuming they aren't lazy; is good persuasive data. "your pictures/westerns aren't convincing" - well let me keep doing them and cherry pick one that is convincing.

    BTW I was talking to a guy from Hopkins the other day about Dr. Brookes whistle blowing activities. I was surprised with his take: "Brookes is ridiculous man, he is hurting people." Jeesh. Also the excel example given by PP leaves little trace, no sharp eyed post-doc can catch duplication of pictures or gels being cut etc..

  • Alfred Wallace says:

    "At first I thought you were posting a weird hypothetical but you're serious?? That is crazy, crazy shit. "

    same here

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