Sunday, March 06, 2011

Scientific misconduct

The news on research misconduct is coming in hard and fast. A Bradford University professor was reportedly caught having published content that he plagiarized from Indian academics.  Germany had its fair share of significant scandals fairly recently. Retraction Watch reported on Professor Joachim Boldt who had some 90 or so papers retracted because they involved academic misconduct of some kind or other. The country defense minister was forced to resign (mostly because of outrage among the conservative middle classes and widespread anger among academics) because his doctoral thesis basically was a patchwork of stuff he copied elsewhere. Der Spiegel weekly magazine reports that the head of sport medicine at Freiburg University is currently under investigation by university authorities for having plagiarized parts of his habilitation (a German kinda second doctorate that you need if you wish to go for professorial jobs - a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination, but that's a story for another day). As yet unsubstantiated rumors have it that he delayed his PhD student's thesis defence so that he'd be able to publish his habilitation first. The university also investigates claims that said professor's wife, in order to speed up her doctoral thesis defense misappropriated content from doctoral theses her husband supervised for her own thesis.

At Bioethics, a journal that I am associated with as an Editor, we had to face - in this year alone - two plagiarism cases, each time involving stuff we published being plagiarized elsewhere. One paper has since been retracted by BMC Medical Ethics, an Open Access electronic publication operated by Springer Publishing. The retraction did not occur until significant pressure was exerted on the reluctant publisher. In case of doubt, strangely, publishers and editors seem quite happy to cover their authors' tracks and opt for Errata as opposed to retractions, the dreadful word 'plagiarism' is avoided at nearly all cost by publishers and editors. It's unclear to me whether that is due to legal reasons as opposed to lack of insight on the relevant editors' part. The other plagiarism claim is still investigated. When you realize that we publish only between 55 and 65 manuscripts in any given year, that's quite a bad start into 2011.

In Britain the conservative paper The Telegraph reports the results of a nationwide survey suggesting that some institutions had to face down hundreds of cheating students in just one year. You'll be pleased to know that the supposedly best universities in the country, Oxford and Cambridge (where likely the pressure to perform is highest) reported in 2009/2010 12 and 1 instances respectively of cheating amongst their students. I guess, the good news is that once you've been admitted there you don't have to worry too much about getting caught while you engage in academic misconduct. Their  enforcement of academic standards is likely to be pretty lax indeed. Cambridge having caught one student cheating in said academic year seems to be the perfect place to study these days. I recommend the league table to you in case you consider enrolling in places where you stand a fair chance at getting away with cheating because nobody seems to bother checking too carefully. Go for those universities that report close to no students cheating, and you likely are on to a winner. To my academic colleagues asking for evidence I have to say that I do think students everywhere cheat in significant numbers. It's simply the case that some institutions care more so than others about catching cheats. A low number of caught cheats in my reality is not evidence of fewer cheats, rather it is evidence of lax enforcement and monitoring.

In unrelated news, the BBC reports that Germany is today the world's most popular country, closely followed by Britain...

1 comment:

  1. (cross posted on Christian Munthe's Blog)

    I have noticed a related problem that contributes, I believe, both to reduced quality and possibly plagiarism in bioethics: because of the interdisciplinary nature of bioethics, some journals and publishers have imported the accepted convention from the sciences to cite without any page references. This needs to stop.

    This convention makes sense in science, when the citation is almost always to the central conclusion of a particular journal article. But in the humanities this is not the case at all. As a result you see a proliferation of meaningless citations that either do nothing to advance a point or serve as a "cover your ass" because anything you wrote in the paragraph that you took form the cited reference is now supposedly legitimately cited.

    I recently reviewed a bioethics monograph that contained no page references and it was clear that in some cases the author had not actually read the whole article, and certainly not the many books that were cited without any page given in their entirety!

    It also made it nearly impossible for me to check his references as I do not have the next year free to comb through 150 works to verify that they said anything remotely along the lines of what he claimed. I only took the trouble when a given claim conflicted what I already knew to be the case.

    Finally, you are quite correct in your earlier post about authors getting in way over their heads in conceptual issues they have no expertise in. So you now have people who publish articles on free will, autonomy, consciousness etc. with so little understanding of the extensive philosophical issues that the article would be an embarrassing joke in even a tertiary disciplinary journal, but is acceptable in an interdisciplnary journal where apparently you are encouraged to publish on topics you know very little about. .

    Hello Mr. neuroscientist whose last philosophical writing was done in college: I don't try to publish articles on signaling in the amygdala, why are you publishing an article on something you know nothing about? You are not contributing meaningfully to the discourse.

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