Scandal: Is Academic Integrity on the Decline?

The pressure of the lab can sometimes tempt students and professors alike to resort to methods which are not entirely honest (Wikimedia Commons / Eugen Nosko, Deutsche Fotothek)
The pressure of the lab can sometimes tempt students and professors alike to resort to methods which are not entirely honest (Wikimedia Commons / Eugen Nosko, Deutsche Fotothek)

McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures.” – Senate resolution, January 29, 2003

Every single course outline at McGill should have the preceding statement somewhere on it. If you don’t abide by Articles 16 and 17 in the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures – which deal with plagiarism and cheating, respectively – you risk penalties ranging from an admonishment to expulsion. But in the “real world,” you may face even harsher consequences. Perhaps the most visible consequence in the scientific community is a retraction. A retraction essentially signals that something in a paper was so egregiously incorrect, fraudulent, or misleading that the only way to correct the error is to mark the whole paper as “retracted” and/or remove it from the literature. Recently, two incidents have shown how retractions and academic dishonesty can ruin careers.

This summer, one paper highlighted the dangers of careless proofreading by editors, reviewers, and authors. A paper, “Synthesis, Structure, and Catalytic Studies of Palladium and Platinum Bis-Sulfoxide Complexes,” was published online by the journal Organometallics on July 12, 2013. Supplementary material was also published online. Readers were quick to notice a line that seemed a bit… out of place.

Emma, please insert NMR data here! where are they? and for this compound, just make up an elemental analysis…

This is widely assumed to be a comment from a member of the lab responsible for the paper, directed at first-author Dr. Emma Drinkel.

The chemistry blog ChemBark investigated this issue in depth, reaching out to the authors involved, as well as the editor-in chief of the journal (who responded). Speculation ran rampant in the comments section. Some commenters lambasted the reviewers and the peer-review process for not catching this error, others wondered if Drinkel was being too pressured by her lab, and others questioned the worth of an elemental analysis in light of the fact that “just making it up” was seen as a plausible work-around. Drinkel’s mother even e-mailed a sympathetic commenter to express her belief in her daughter’s innocence.

This was but one isolated case. Entire decades-long careers can sometimes be defamed along with their paper. Diederik Stapel was “an academic star” in the psychological field until 2011, when three junior researchers reported him for suspected scientific misconduct. At least 55 of his publications were affected. However, retractions were not the most serious consequence he faced: because his research was funded by public or federal grants, Dutch prosecutors considered arraigning him for misusing public funds. The prosecution ended up concluding that he had not defrauded the government and the taxpayers – nevertheless, he agreed to perform 120 hours of community service in a settlement this summer; and he’d already voluntarily surrendered his doctoral degree.

The scientists implicated in the above papers will likely have these incidents follow them around forever. This is particularly true in light of the rise of the Internet; the World Wide Web not only opens up new avenues and software to catch plagiarism – TurnItIn and Deja Vu, for example – but also ensures that (for better or for worse) no mistake in an academic career is overlooked or forgotten. Scientists can also analyze their peers’ work as it gets published online, potentially catching errors and fraud which can then be shared with members of the media. For scientists, Retraction Watch is one such entity of science media, serving as a Google-able archive of scientists’ past poor judgement. Co-founder Ivan Oranksy discussed his work and the perceived explosion of scientific fraud during a lecture at Concordia University this May.

During this lecture, Oransky noted that scientific retractions are certainly on the rise. There has been a ten-fold increase in the number of retractions over the past ten years – staggering, considering that there has only been a 44% increase in number of papers published. Do these stories and statistics mean fraud itself on the rise? One study suggests that it is, and Oransky concurred during his lecture at Concordia that “clearly, it’s more than just the number of papers.” Many retraction notices don’t explicitly indicate the reason for retraction – something against which Retraction Watch has fought, to mixed reactions from editors (e.g. “it’s none of your damn business”). Regardless, the truth about misconduct’s role in retractions is becoming more apparent. A study published in PNAS in 2012 revealed that the majority of retracted life-science papers were indeed retracted due to suspected misconduct.

None of the above incidents seem to have implicated McGill students. However, we are by no means immune. McGill may soon be in the news for academic integrity issues as the winners of the prestigious Hult Prize competition are to be announced next Monday. A McGill team from the Desautels MBA program had entered the competition with a business plan for a cricket generator, but questions were raised about who actually owns the idea. It would appear that the administration stands behind Jakub Dzamba**, the Ph.D. student who claims he conceptualized the generator in 2009. The Office of Sponsored Research has a provisional patent application on file naming only Dzamba. While the competition focuses primarily on the business plan and not the idea itself, the dispute must be resolved soon. While the concerns about the integrity of the team won’t prevent the McGill team from competing in the final round and winning the Hult Prize in name, they cannot receive the one-million-dollar grand prize if the implementation of their plan would violate international laws – including intellectual property laws.

Academic integrity issues are unfortunately common, both inside McGill and at other institutions. While there may always be an incentive to cut corners, students should remember that they are largely just cheating themselves of the learning that takes place during genuine scientific inquiry – or, in some cases, of one million dollars. While pressures in academic and other environments might be contributing to increase incidents of misconduct, we should all ensure that we police ourselves and encourage our colleagues to do our very best regardless of the pressures we face.

** Modification of Dzamba’s first name. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s