The insidious erosion of ethics

May 16, 1997

Cheating is a growing temptation that must be resisted by researchers, argues Dom Wilson

Ask a research student about ethics in research and they usually have little difficulty in running off a string of examples - unaccredited authorship; supervisors browbeating students into unappealing research topics and methods; multiple publishing of virtually identical articles; the use of intellectual bullying, ridicule and power to smother discussion... Warming to the theme, young researchers seem to find it easy to point out the ethical weaknesses in supervisors, in the academic system, and even in other researchers, but they show much less insight into their own work.

This is only natural, but it is also a serious and growing problem. Consider the ethical infringements that most supervisors find - such as "smoothing" anomalous data, inventing obscure references, "augmenting" patchy evidence to support seemingly obvious but unsubstantiated conclusions; faking survey data to boost sample size or hide bias; editing interview transcripts to focus on convenient "highlights", or discarding analytical techniques which generate unattractive results.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about such cheating is how difficult it can be to spot. Do we know how much cheating there is? Or what are the prevailing ethical standards of academic research, whether at postgraduate or any other level?

In my own experience I have encountered many examples of `ethically-challenged research -though not always recognised as such by those involved. And the increasing pressures on all researchers of deadlines, publication expectations, resource cuts, and career uncertainty all add weight to the insidious erosion of ethical standards.

For example, there was the notorious 1987 case of a prominent entrepreneur who, while lecturing at a United States business school, offered postgraduate students $100,000 for any information (gleaned during research for assignments) leading to a successful acquisition, a case made worse by the outrage of the entrepreneur when challenged as to the ethical probity of his offer.

Or the 1994 case of the UK postgraduate researcher who won the support of a leading British investment advice newspaper in distributing his questionnaire to potential investors without feeling it necessary to mention the private investment consultant who was backing the research and receiving the data. Again, what was startling about this was not just the ethical standards of the researcher but the dismissive reaction of the supervisor who saw nothing wrong and even applauded the initiative of the researcher in persuading the newspaper to circulate the questionnaire.

Many cases of ethical infringement are too easily dismissed as errors of confusion, which can so easily occur during interviewing, or "hoovering" the literature, in discussions with supervisors, analysing data, or presenting to colleagues. These are not significant when they are promptly corrected but with personal pride and professionalism at stake, the temptation to overlook such aberrations - especially when they are unnoticed, and when they ease the plausibility of an argument - can be difficult to resist. Examples here include exaggerating and polarising unsympathetic aspects of the literature, censoring quotes to make a point, showering semi-relevant references (often based simply on reading abstracts) to "snow" the reader, "losing" or burying anomalous and awkward data.

A particularly common example of this cosmetic process in doctoral research is the tendency to reverse-engineer one's research methodology after the event in order to match results. Immaculately conceived methodologies rarely reflect reality! Inexperienced researchers tend to underestimate the extent to which research is a learning experience, not just about the topic researched but also about the methods and practices of research. Yet all researchers make mistakes, these are often the most valuable learning opportunities, and they should be explicitly acknowledged and discussed in research writing. To present research as a smooth unblemished process of conception, exploration, analysis and discussion is not only unconvincing it is fraudulent and dishonest.

Most academics deeply empathise with doctoral students and their supervisors who are increasingly expected to produce publishable and innovative research to shorter deadlines and with scarcer resources. But to achieve this at the cost of ethical standards is to run the risks of condoning such pressures while also undermining the validity of academic research in general.

But it is too easy to blame the researcher when there are ethical errors. Often it is more the supervisor who is at fault, whether by commission or omission. The relationship between supervisor and student is one which is always open to abuse because of the implicit imbalance of power, and therefore ethics are all the more important in the absence of other realistic restraints. Yet the temptation to overlook ethical supervision issues is growing all the time, driven forward by the increasing pressures to show evidence of research, whether to raise research ratings, or to roll over short-term contracts, or to seek promotion, or to trigger resource streams.

Recently I have heard of hard-pressed academics taking on doctoral students despite an almost complete lack of relevant expertise or interest in the research area, or even taking on students who have little or no chance of completing a doctorate, simply to give a short-term boost to a cv looking for promotion to another university. Other supervisors notoriously ignore their professional responsibilities to provide time for serious discussion with their research students.

Others give such close guidance as to amount to "indoctrination" rather than "exploration", finding that this can be done more quickly than protracted exploratory and interactive discussions. There are also supervisors who take on doctoral students on the explicit understanding that the supervisor gets first name co-authorship on the first three articles produced by the student, regardless of who does the work involved.

So it is important to remember that research in the real world is about compromise. On the one hand you have the sort of naive, self-indulgent, ivory tower idealism that sees research purely as a contribution to knowledge divorced from issues over who is actually paying for it. And on the other hand you have the pragmatic necessities both of meaningful research (access, synthesis, coherence, costs, time) and of effective supervision (relationship management, deadlines, career aspirations, resource negotiations).

An ethical compromise has to be struck between these often incompatible ideals and practicalities. For example, is it ethical to abandon a research project, with all the lost opportunities and wasted resources that this usually involves, simply because you entered into the project with insufficient awareness of the realities of research? I often wonder how the taxpayer would react if they knew what happens to the research funds they provide, and what value they would place on some of the "knowledge" generated. What guides the researcher and supervisor in this compromising is, of course, their personal approach to the professional ethics of research, underpinned by their private (even unconscious) moral principles.

Research is a process of "principled compromise", informed by professional knowledge of the techniques and limitations of research methods, driven by personal interest and energy, and presented with whatever honesty and objectivity that can be mustered. Ethical challenges arise in all these aspects and the ability to cope with the challenges involved is an essential and continual requirement of professional research. One response to such challenges would be to provide interesting and relevant sessions on research ethics for all postgraduate researchers but, ultimately, it all boils down to the personal honesty and professional competence of researchers (including supervisors) themselves.

Dom Wilson is a lecturer in marketing at the school of management at UMIST. The views above are his own.

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