Academics ‘exaggerate achievements’ on CVs

Researchers examined a sample of CVs and found that scholarly dishonesty extends to job applications

October 8, 2019
Lying
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When we think about academic misconduct, we tend to think about misrepresentation of research findings or plagiarism. But a new study says that misrepresentation of academic achievements on CVs is a problem requiring attention, too.

For their experiment, the researchers collected each and every curriculum vitae submitted for all faculty positions at a large, purposely unnamed research university over the course of a year. Then they let the CVs sit for 18 to 30 months to allow any pending articles to mature into publications that they could verify.

To make the dataset manageable, the researchers eventually analysed 10 per cent of the sample for accuracy. Of the 180 CVs reviewed, 141, or 78 per cent, claimed to have at least one publication. But 79 of those 141 applicants (56 per cent) had at least one publication on their CV that was unverifiable or inaccurate in a self-promoting way, such as misrepresenting authorship order.

Trisha Phillips, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University who studies research ethics, said that it’s impossible to tell based on the study’s methodology whether the faculty applicants intended to mislead hiring committees or whether they were making honest mistakes. But she pointed out that the analysis identified just 27 errors that were not self-promoting, such as demoting oneself in authorship order. That’s compared with 193 errors that were self-promoting.

The imbalance or disproportionality was “pretty startling”, Dr Phillips said.

The 193 instances of unverified or inaccurate research citations that were self-promoting included six articles in journals that coders could not locate, or unverified journals, and 72 articles they could not find in verified journals. There were 31 books and book chapters that they could not find and 24 forthcoming articles they could not find in verified journals.

Coders also counted four instances of authorship insertion, 27 instances of authorship promotion and another 27 instances of authorship omission. Authorship insertion involves applicants listing themselves as authors on a publication on which they were not actually included. Promotion is applicants inflating their contribution by bumping themselves up on the list of authors. Omission, meanwhile, is applicants leaving out other authors listed on the publication itself.

What could be motivating this behaviour? Dr Phillips said that just as the publish-or-perish dynamic on the tenure track can encourage the big three of deliberate misconduct (data fabrication, falsification or plagiarism) or other detrimental research practices, the tight job market might encourage CV embellishment.

“This likelihood of getting caught is low, and the rewards for getting away with it are high,” Dr Phillips added.

And while a tight job market means that hiring committees don’t have time to play sleuth with scores of applicants’ CVs, she said, they should probably fact-check their top candidates’ publication records.

“I’ve been on a hiring committee where [we] got 150 applications, and I never would have fact-checked all of them, or recommend that,” she said. “But by the time you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, I’d say that most search committees should take a look and then go back to the longer list if someone gets disqualified.”

If you’ve been on hiring committees and haven’t been verifying CVs, don’t be too hard on yourself. Dr Phillips said that until now, “there’s been a sense that this isn’t a problem in higher ed, and [it] doesn’t really occur to people that this kind of checking needs to be done”.

Even so, there have been some high-profile incidents of fudging CVs. Anoop Shankar, a former professor of community medicine at West Virginia, was accused of falsifying his credentials to get grants. He also was accused of lying to immigration authorities, improperly using his West Virginia purchasing card and forging professors’ signatures on fake recommendation letters, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Federal authorities sought his extradition to the US last year, when he was believed to have travelled to India from the United Arab Emirates.

As the paper says, the issue is one of trust.

“In the increasingly social world of science, researchers need to trust their collaborators and other scholars at nearly every point of the research process, including literature reviews, data collection, data analysis, manuscript preparation and peer review,” it says. Yet evidence “suggests that this trust might not be well placed”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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