Academic Misconduct: What it is and how to prevent it

Scientists, researchers and engineers hold the responsibility to develop science for the benefit of society. However, what happens when that responsibility is abused and academic misconduct yields false results in research?

Allan Prochazka, Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine shared his knowledge and experience regarding academic integrity and misconduct at the Jan. 14 Physics Colloquium.

To understand misconduct, the line between error and misconduct must be clearly defined. Error is a staple of science, and, according to Prochazka, if a scientist has yet to make an error, they have not done enough science yet.

“We make mistakes due to carelessness; we make mistakes in terms of interpretation; we make mistakes with the technology,” Prochazka said. But, at what point do mistakes become misconduct?

The zone between error and misconduct is invariably grey. Prochazka offered ethics as a way to differentiate between the two zones. “People talk about different theories of ethics like virtue ethics or utilitarianism. Virtue ethics do come in to play here in that virtues are developed by education and practice. I think for a lot of us, developing habits and automatic defaults are a good way of keeping things straight.”

While ethics can shine a light on the boundary between error and misconduct, examining human tendencies offers one explanation for the motivation behind misconduct. “Humans, by their nature, want to take the easy way out,” Prochazka said. “We don’t want conflict. We want to fit in with the group. We want to ignore difficult issues. What I should do and what I want compete, and to control the wanting self, we have to practice behaviors and have strong societal norms.”

When misconduct occurs, for whatever reason, public trust can be greatly impacted. “Public trust is a key aspect in terms of science, and misconduct in any area, erodes confidence all the way around,” Prochazka said. “If there is no trust then self-regulation goes away.”

Any research in a field where findings tend to make headlines, such as medicine or environmental science, can easily find itself subject to public scrutiny. Prochazka offered the global warming email scandal of 2009 as an example.

“What’s the public perception of climate science? Those emails released five years ago that had climate scientists talking about (climate change) data eroded confidence in the public as to whether there is a global warming issue or not.”

Public distrust leads to more stringent regulations. However, those regulations do not necessarily deter misconduct. “The rates of inappropriate behavior are more common than one would wish,” Prochazka said. “Lifetime rates of cheating may be as high as 80 percent.”

Ultimately, Prochazka offered a solution to the academic misconduct dilemma. “I think academic integrity and trying to practice responsible conduct in research is the key to trust. If there is no trust, there is going to be no science.”

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