Research misconduct

whistleblowerIn 2011 there was a growing trickle of news about various kinds of research malpractice: data fabrication, falsification and obfuscation (not reporting adverse outcomes); plagiarism (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2008/01/01/watch-out-burglars-about/) ; repeated publication of data, text and diagrams (self-plagiarism); ‘guest’ contributors; plus other kinds of scientific fraud and chicanery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_misconduct). Motives are many, from malice to laziness, but more often than not are a mixture of ambition, greed, jealousy, desperation and paranoia that increasingly form the downside of academic life – not the least in science. Life is so hard in a career dominated by promotion, which in academe rests on: publication lists; peer citations; journal impact factors; institutional income generation and, let’s face it, by the kind of individual self-regard and hubris that drives people to seek fame and celebrity. The wider population has grown accustomed to this as bystanders watching Big Brother, the X-Factor and Fame Academy.

Fiddling research has reached such a level as to provoke the world’s most prestigious research outlet, Nature, to include an editorial on the topic (Editorial 19 January 2012. Face up to fraud. Nature, v. 481, p. 237-238), albeit after a first lead about the Antarctic Treaty at the centenary of the race to the South Pole, and followed by a puff for articles in the same issue on how to get research funding from the public or philanthropists.

As many scientists suspect, in fact what does emerge about research malpractice is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, some admitting to wandering from the path of righteousness themselves (but not saying how or where). One mild form is making unsubstantiated claims: a great many geologists (including me) have trodden very thin ice in this regard (unless they wisely included the ‘Get Out of Jail’ verb ‘to speculate’), but few innocent bystanders, if any, have met a horrid fate as a result of resultant health and safety ‘issues’. A great deal that should not does get through peer-review to enter the canon of whichever discipline. Academic fraud is a quasi-crime with few risks of detection, though punishment can be swingeing,  in the manner of being cast into the ‘dark place’.

According to Nature, what makes Britain seem to be a haven of academic honesty is the risk that both journals and ‘whistleblowers’ face from libel laws, should deeds and authors be named and linked. Moreover, certain kinds of gross malpractice never reach peer-reviewed publication. Examples are: malicious falsification of someone else’s data by a perpetrator with access to the data on, say, a lab server; swapping analytical sample labels; destroying lab records(https://earth-pages.co.uk/2010/11/04/sabotage-in-science-4/); petty theft of ideas (on which there is no formal copyright), for instance through copying poster presentations at conferences; misuse of peer-review privileges – generally anonymous (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2006/08/01/anonymous-referees-2/); menacing a presenter at a conference or disrupting their presentation. Victims of such actions rarely have any redress, unless the perpetrator is actually caught ‘in flagrante delicto’, so to speak (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2010/11/04/sabotage-in-science-4/).

Whistle blowers’ or complainants then face the defensive mechanisms of the academic world: not dissimilar to those of the musk ox. How far you get as regards redress depends to a large extent on the seniority of the perpetrator. An extremely brave friend cited, with abundant evidence, his vice-chancellor for gross cronyism: he was soon ‘on the cobbles’ with the VC (male) remaining ‘virgo intacto. Yet an Industrial Tribunal took a very dim view of the whole affair: my pal paid off his mortgage and lives well in retirement from the compensation awarded by the tribunal. It takes an exceptionally brave graduate student to take on their supervisor(s) for malfeasance (or even the lesser misfeasance and nonfeasance – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misfeasance). The likely best outcome (after long and harrowing procedures) is a kind of bribe – more time to complete – but most victims just disappear without completing. Unless the perpetrators are low on the academic scale (they might get a reprimand at worst), promotion to management or enhanced early retirement is a common response by senior management to mounds of incontrovertible evidence of guilt. The oddest fate for someone flying high in the institutional firmament was rumoured to be a posting to a far-flung outpost of the former British Empire: but I digress…

The geosciences seem immune to research malpractice, which may reflect at best the small numbers involved in the discipline or at worst because no-one notices, or cares for that matter. Unless, that is, dear reader, you know different…  Most important, for graduate students who are the most usual victims: protect yourselves (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2003/12/01/protecting-your-intellectual-property-2/).

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