29 March 2009


I'm not sure where my sense of morality and ethics originated. I do know that it tends to be as/more strong/stringent as most other people I know. Despite many situations in basic schooling (elementary, middle and high school) when opportunities arose to allow me to cheat at schoolwork, I decided not to follow that easier route. In college, I knew many students that attempted, and sometimes even succeeded, in cheating the system to achieve better grades but I never permitted myself to even consider the possibility (*sidenote*: my lack of cheating at schoolwork had as much to do with academic snobbery, or a feeling of being superior to the need to cheat, as the weak ethical standards it represented *end sidenote*).

My undergraduate university presumably maintained strict standards about cheating and plagiarism, including required ethical conduct statements in all syllabi. Regardless, I knew of no one that experienced class failure or dismissal from the University because of the violation of this statement. However, I was granted the opportunity to learn from several outstanding professors that adhered to strict standards about ethical violations. On one particularly memorable occasion, a professor encountered plagiarism on a relatively unimportant assignment. He delivered a short, well-worded, and vehement lecture condemning the practice and then cancelled class in order for us to "consider the implications of academic dishonesty." While I am not sure how other students in the class viewed his display, I felt relief in knowing people I admire take such cheating seriously.

I remember that professor every time I encounter a case of academic dishonesty. While beginning my graduate education I took a class in ethical conduct of science. Most of the exercises seemed silly, because I had already considered the implications of most examples of dishonesty presented. The most striking revelation from this class was the frequency with which such violations occur. Perhaps because I suffer from the common ailment of most academics in thinking that everyone else maintains a similar mindset to me, I was shocked to discover that there are scientists that have inappropriate relationships with students, falsify data, and maintain less-than-perfect standards in data collection and analysis.

A recent article in Science Magazine documents an interesting study in which plagiarism detection software found a few hundred cases of academic dishonesty in (mostly medical?) journal articles. The main subject of this research article, however, revolved around questionnaires sent to relevant authors and journal editors of both the original articles and presumably "copied" articles. The responses to these queries was quite revealing: responses ranged from outright condemnation of the practice, to tact acceptance, to apologetic remorse.

I have encountered several examples of cheating in the course of my graduate career. My graduate student peers often have undergraduate students attempting to cheat in classes they teach. Conversations with post-doctoral researchers and other graduate students reveal interesting situations of compromised ethical standards at other institutions in which they worked, including inappropriate student/professor relationships (which can have direct effects on the standards to which scientific inquiry is held), questionable data collection/analysis, and stealing scientific ideas, experiments, and data first developed by other researchers (and other related cases of academic blackmail).

More importantly, I have experienced interesting cases that required direct decisions and judgement on my part. I reviewed a journal article that had whole paragraphs copied directly from a previous paper with some of the same authors. At the time, I thought a new graduate student (or technician, or undergraduate) had used a senior scientist's paper as a template to write a new paper and had leaned a little too heavily on the previous author's writing. After reading the Science article, however, I'm starting to wonder if the situation had less to do with an accident and more to do with ignorance and lax standards. Recently, I've also encountered a case related to one of my service activities in which a graduate student may be attempting to pass over another student's work as their own.

The most interesting aspect of this issue is that I have noted so many cases of academic dishonesty directly related to myself and my peers, but that some editors questioned in the Science article admitted to never having faced these difficulties before. Why? I see that there are several options. (1) Academic dishonesty is increasing in frequency. (2) The frequency of such violations remains the same, but technology is allowing them to be detecting more often. (3) Scientists (and other academics) are becoming less adept at hiding academic dishonesty. (4) I am more adept at noting and remembering academic dishonesty.

Perhaps it is a combination of factors. I can only hope that the people with which I interact maintain similar standards of ethical conduct. I know we will not always agree on the relevance and importance of ethics in certain situations; many situations are generally distilled down to esoteric and abstract philosophical notions. However, any situation that could result in a contribution of scientific knowledge demands, in my opinion, only a strict adherence to standards of accuracy and precision in the interpretation of data, and in these cases, a discussion of such standards may be worth the time.

These are some lovely golden raspberries I had to buy the other day as they were on sale at the supermarket. They reminded me of my days working on plant systematics at WKU, as my undergrad advisor was an expert in Rubus, (raspberries and blackberries). So many pretty little berries, all perfectly alike...it is so interesting to me that the collection of data is best done with strict replication, but the writing up and publishing of research results is so flawed when copying from previous authors occurs....

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