Academia and ethics

Not long ago, Kingston University staff were caught trying to pressure students into giving dishonest replies to a nation-wide survey about student satisfaction. The BBC and Wikileaks have several informative postings about the subject. In a world dominated by marketing and PR, the underlying motto has become: what looks good, must be good. It’s the same logic that makes (some) university departments spice up their activity reports with dead projects listed as being ongoing, non-active students listed as being active, non-refereed articles being passed off as refereed, and so on. Dishonesty and deceit are seen as short-cuts to better-looking results, which increases the attractiveness for prospective students and sponsors.

Individual researchers do this, too, in the hope of increasing the apparent value of their own CVs. There is a whole website devoted to famous plagiarists, for instance, many of whom are scientists. Although I would suspect that plagiarism as a simple copy-and-paste procedure is less common than the practice of "forgetting" to credit one’s sources and properly display the origin of ideas. Although I must hasten to point out that while it’s often easy to suspect, "forgetfulness" is difficult to prove.

Ideally, a scientist should be a kind of guardian of truth. At the very least, s/he should be trusted to be honest and ethical about data, methods, etc., and nothing like the South Korean Scientist & the much-publicised affair of the faked cloning research. With the advent of high-tech computers and digital imaging, deceptions are becoming more and more advanced. See, for instance, this article about a caught attempt at using faked images for a medical research article.

There are also other types of deceitful behaviour in academia, some of which I’ve witnessed myself. For instance, I have been asked to forge signatures on applications, and fake receits for travel accounts; both with the claimed intent of simplifying paper work. (Don’t ask. I don’t understand it either.) I’ve even been asked to use my private bank account to "store" project funds in order to make it easier to access. Needless to say, I’ve refused participation in each case. It does make you wonder, though. Can people who rationalise shammy behaviour be trusted to produce honest research? Personally I doubt it. People who lack moral standards in one area, generally lack morals in other areas, too. The simple truth is that con men are con men 24 hours a day.

Anyway, this sounds a bit depressing, but it really isn’t. There are, generally speaking, good people in academia, just like there are elsewhere.