The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the US Department of Health and Human Services has
How big a driver are
these Competitive Pressures?
Research dishonesty happens for many reasons, and I don’t have a definite quantitative answer to how much is driven solely by the competitive pressures of the academic environment. But the data from ORI can give us some clues. The graphic below shows the rank of those accused of research misconduct over a period of 10 years. The ladder towards a tenured academic position looks something like this:
Grad Student ⇒ Postdoc ⇒ Assistant Professor ⇒ Associate Professor ⇒ Professor.
Among these ranks, those who are not yet tenured (grad student through assistant professor) account for 81% of cases. While not conclusive, this is an indication that the pressures that come with the process of tenure are a large component of what drives people to research misconduct.
What exactly do these pressures look like?
Associate professors have a limited amount of time, typically 5-7 years, to prove themselves, at which point they go through the tenure process. The decision for tenure is supposed to be based on scholarship, service, and teaching. However, in practice the focus seems to be on the number of publications, quality of the journals, and ability to get funding through grants; an attitude often expressed as “publish or perish”. This enormous pressure to produce extraordinary results quickly is then passed “down the ladder” to grad students.
An ORI video case study showcases this competitive pressure, and the problems associated with it, perfectly. In the case study, a graduate student has conflicting experimental results. However, due to the deadline for the grant proposal, there is no time to re-do any of the experiments. She is told to use the results from one of her experiments that shows the trend they were hoping for. The video then asks several pertinent questions such as:
- What pressure is the Graduate student facing right now?
- How might those pressures change how she conducts her research?
- When you have contradictory results, how do you choose what, or how much of it, to present?
- What issues could arise if only the single positive result is reported?
How competitiveness can be bad.
A certain level of competitiveness is healthy and necessary in research. But the type of pressures we see in the ORI video and that I have experienced and seen others around
Is the university to blame?
Obviously the individuals performing the research misconduct carry a large amount of the blame and should be appropriately punished. However, the university itself, in maintaining a system that makes cheating enticing and beneficial, is partly to blame. This is recognized at the undergraduate level, where for example at Virginia Tech professors and TAs are told they have the responsibility to make it as difficult as possible for students to cheat. For instance, professors should not give the same exam two years in a row.
One could argue that it is up to the students not to cheat and the university should simply punish the students who do cheat. How can the university be to blame for students cheating? Again, I believe that creating an environment where it is beneficial and easy to cheat would make the university partly at fault. After
If the university can recognize this at the undergraduate education level why doesn’t it apply the same reasoning at the tenure-track research level?
What can be done?
The university should actively promote an environment conducive to ethical research and a healthy working environment. This can be done by a simultaneous combination of several different approaches as is done in the case of undergraduate education described above. Some of these approaches could include:
- Modification of the tenure evaluation to focus less on single hard metrics and more on a
hollisticevaluation of the candidate’s abilities.
- Active training for professors and grad students on ethical research (and while we are at it, teaching).
- Actively promoting (and ensuring) work-life balance and wellness among faculty and students.
- Having the committee, department, and even university play a more formal role in grad student’s development and progress, rather than working under a single individual.
I want to expand significantly on these
One of the biggest drivers of research misconduct is the unnecessary pressures placed on tenure-track faculty, and the university is partly at fault for failing to create an environment and culture conducive to ethical research.