What is misconduct?

The results of a small survey of graduate students and post-docs suggest that our research trainees don’t really know what research misconduct is below the level of flat-out fabrication.

However, we were dismayed that only 54 per cent gave a three to “knowingly selecting only those data that support a hypothesis” and 42 per cent to “deleting some data to make trends clearer”. The naivety is staggering. – Tim Birkhead & Tom Montgomerie

They also note that these individuals face considerable barriers to reporting misconduct when they believe it has occurred.

I recall the mandatory ethics class we took at Washington University in St. Louis. It was worthless. I recall spending a great deal of time talking about “salami science”. Salami science is the practice of parceling your work out into as many paper with as little unique content each as possible. This is bad behavior that games some of the systems used to evaluate researchers. It does not, however, corrupt the scientific results with inaccurate data and results.

While I received my training in proper, scientific conduct in my thesis lab, that is not a sustainable solution. The future of scientific investigation should not depend on the efforts of individual thesis mentors – they are simply too inconsistent. Ethics education is key to training in the proper implementation of the scientific method and should be central to all aspects of graduate training, including the development of quality courses that provide real training in ethics and identifying misconduct.

Author: Josh Witten


4 thoughts on “What is misconduct?”

  1. You were at Wash U. too? I did my Ph.D. there as well. And I barely recall the ethics training, but know in my course, I don’t think we spent a lot of time on salami science and did focus on a few cases of genuine fraud, though I think more time was spent dealing with figuring out author order of appearance. I feel like with big data sets out there now, salami science is the norm rather than sketchy practice.

    And I agree with your larger point. I also feel like right along with it needs to go statistical training. The system as constituted rewards publication, not much else…teaching, learning, ethics, diversity are all secondary to authorship & research; whether it’s quality or not (that may be overly cynical, but that’s how I see it on my most ‘down on academia days’.

    1. Yes. I completed my PhD at the very beginning of 2010. We also spent quite a bit of time on author order. Coincidentally, I took my ethics course right after the institution was coming off a fraud scandal of its own, but I don’t recall enough details to risk describing it and impugning innocent people.

      1. Cool. I completed mine in 2007. We must have overlapped a bit.

        I don’t recall any major fraud scandals while I was there (they may well have existed), but my Ph.D. advisor being denied tenure was kind of ridiculous (he’s now tenured and very happy at another R1). And while I don’t know if it involved science, there was a scandalous story from a neighboring department. I don’t know full details either, and won’t impugn anyone here either.

        1. My subjective imprssion was that it was kept rather quiet. I heard more about it at the time because I knew folks in a lab that was tangentially connected to the lab in question.

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