Ethics: SCANDAL!

Throughout this Winter Quarter, the SSRC is partnering with the Department of Sociology to present a series of workshops and conversations about research ethics. To extend those conversations, we will be posting items about research ethics here for discussion.

One recent afternoon, a group of DePaul researchers—students, staff, and faculty—met in the SSRC conference room for the second session in our Research Ethics Workshop Series for lunch and discussion about what is and isn’t acceptable research practice, where grey areas exist, and what fundamental structures of academic research might actually contribute to poor or even fraudulent research.

That conversation, aided by the slides above, ranged from the practical to the principled. I’ll try to recapture that conversation here.

The presentation began with the case of Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who was recently found guilty of extensively fabricating data over many years in dozens of studies, at least 30 articles, and up to 14 dissertations. The universities Stapel had been affiliated with acted swiftly and thoroughly, publishing a preliminary report that outlined his methods, the effects, the academic environment that had contributed to his behavior, and issuing some recommendations. This fascinating report raises points about academic fraud and deception revealed through the tale of a charismatic swindler who abused the trust, admiration, and ambition of his colleagues and students to spin research gold from invented data, apparently in the name of selfless scientific progress.

The slides also illustrate the story of evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser, whose research assistants discovered coding inconsistencies that led to his conviction on eight counts of academic misconduct by his home institution (Harvard, no less). Though less extensive than Stapel’s fraud, Hauser ended up leaving his position at Harvard (after the faculty there voted overwhelmingly to bar him from teaching). The exact nature of his misconduct is a mystery since Harvard (hoping to protect its reputation?) has not released any information.

The workshop ended with a quiz-style round of questions related to a recent study of psychologists about their research practices. We debated the prevalence and defensibility of potentially dubious ethical practices and compared our conclusions with the study’s findings. Some discrepancies took us by surprise; others seemed the result of an over-generous interpretation of the survey questions.

A recurring theme in our conversation was the primacy transparency should have in every aspect of the research process, from collaborating with colleagues, to study design and methodology, to publishing findings. Making data and detailed information about research methodology available after publication would facilitate not only replication but peer review. We agreed that even in cases of academic misconduct, transparency as practiced by the Dutch universities in Stapel’s case was preferable to Harvard’s secrecy about what its transgressor had done—if only to address and ward against future misconduct. Transparency becomes especially important when students and faculty or others in relationships involving a power differential are working together on an ongoing basis. From the start, parties must be explicit about their expectations concerning workload, authorship, and data ownership.

Support for graduate students became a key theme in our own exploration of fraud. Academic training in a PhD program is more than scholastic education; it’s also professional training, which should offer students hands-on opportunities to develop solid (and ethical) research practices. The Dutch committees found that Stapel’s students were isolated from both each other and other faculty—unaware that Stapel’s practice of “collecting” data without their participation was unusual. Stapel abused their trust and robbed them of the opportunity to learn research skills through practice. The investigating committees emphasized the importance of having a neutral party within institutions to whom students can report unethical research practices or consult about what is acceptable.

There are many forms of “currency” in academia, not the least of which is data, earned through rigorous research practice. Stapel ran a tidy counterfeiting operation for years, trading his “data” (which he himself was said to call “gold”) for status, reputation, and international influence. Many people writing about the Stapel case have lamented the data- hoarding that too often characterizes social psychology research, and other fields. How available should data be at each stage of research? Numerous organizations are moving towards open access to data (after publication).

Publications are another form of research currency (this one needed for tenure). Authorship can be slippery to define in collaborative research.  We talked about the ethical grey areas where a mutually beneficial relationship may exist between advisers (especially those with some prestige in their field) and students whose work would go unpublished or unnoticed without the adviser’s prominent authorship. Professional societies include ethical guidelines about authorship. The American Sociological Association, for instance, specifically states that students should have lead authorship on works substantially derived from their dissertation work, a practice our participants said is not always followed. Students may feel that they benefit when their work is “brought to light” by the authorship of a more prominent researcher, but is it ethical? Is it fair?

Further reading:

Retraction Watch As the name suggests, this site tracks retractions throughout scientific scholarship.

John, L., Loewenstein, G.F. and Prelec, D. (January 31, 2012). Measuring the Prevalence of Questionable Research Practices with Incentives for Truth-Telling.

Garner, R. (2012). [Review of the book Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World]. Science & Society: Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 115-135. doi: 10.1521/siso.2012.76.1.115 Available from Guilford Journals.


The Committees investigating Diederik Stapel have begun to publish the findings of their intensive review of Stapel’s publications.


Author: Jessica Speer

As the Research Specialist at SSRC, Jessica edits re/search, consults with faculty, and conducts SSRC research projects. She is interested in questions of information management, preservation, communication, and dissemination.

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