Week 13: Ethics Project

In working  on my final project I have realized that there is so much material to explore regarding open access (OA) and the variety of opinions regarding it. I sat in the front lobby area of Newman Library and asked people walking in and out about their knowledge and opinion of OA publishing. I was really surprised by how many different opinions people had about OA. Although most of the people I talked with had a positive opinion of the idea, I thought there were some very good points that were raised about their concerns with publishing in an OA. Some of these concerns were: How do you ensure legitimacy in pay-to-publish formats? How can you deal with discrimination from academics who do not approve of OA journals? What do you do if not all of the authors on a paper are in agreement about publishing OA?

I think that this would be a great project to explore in more depth and possibly explore some solutions to these questions. Furthermore, if I attempted to make this into a more in-depth study, I would create a more structured survey and ask respondents to write their own responses instead of trying to jot down what they said while we were having the conversation. I found it very difficult to catch what they were saying word-for-word and would like to avoid misinterpreting peoples opinions.

Week 12: Personal Ethics

After reading the article in the Collegiate Times: Students to retake exam after solutions appear online, about the ethics of using Koofers.com to look at past exams, I believe that this should be a fair study tool. I do not think that it is cheating to look at previous tests to get an idea of the format and material that might be asked. In my opinion, the ethical problem is actually with the professor. Knowing that resources like koofers.com exist, I believe that instructors should provide students with the old exams as study material and write new exams so that no student has an unfair advantage. It seems to me that part of a professors responsibilities are to write exams for the classes they teach and I think that simply reusing previous exams without any changes is lazy and ethically wrong.

If the students were accessing koofers.com during the exam or had copies of the previous tests while they were actually taking the exam, however, I do think this would be ethically wrong. I understand that in the article the teacher and department did acknowledge that there was not an academic integrity violation by the students that used the previous exams to study and that they  just wanted to make sure that all of the students were given equal resources for their studying.

I think that this article raised another important point; technology and academics often have a complicated relationship. On one side technology can be a great tool for learning. It is essential that the modern student learns how to utilize technology in order to be competitive for employment. The other side, however, is that teachers need to constantly be aware of how new technology can be used to cheat and adapt their strategies to ensure that students are utilizing the available technology to enhance their learning instead of abusing the technology to have an unfair advantage.

Week 10: Professional Ethics of the Acoustical Society of America

I am a student in the department of Mechanical Engineering and my research is focused on acoustics. For this post I chose to look at the ethics that the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) publishes on their website. The ethical principles that are published by the ASA can be found here: Ethical Principles of the Acoustical Society of America.

The first and most extensive section of the ethical principles that the ASA presents is focused on the ethics of research involving human and non-human vertebrates. They provide clear and detailed guidelines for the methods to handle protected subjects in research. I am very glad to see the provided guidelines. It is important that researchers carefully consider how they design experiments and how the subjects will be affected by those designs. It also made me reflect on the New York Times article that was included in this module, When Torture Becomes Science. I believe that as researches and as compassionate human beings we should consider the effects of our research on our subjects. This is not only during the design of our experiments, but throughout the experimental process. If we feel that subjects are being harmed or sense a violation of the ethical codes, we must immediately stop and reevaluate. I think that reading though the ASA’s ethical principles is a great way to evaluate the aspects of a research study that effect experimental subjects. I do not think, however, that these principles are all inclusive. Researchers must continually ask themselves if the experimental design violates the safety or well-being of their subjects.

One of the things that bothered me about the ethical principles is that it limits the scope to humans and non-human vertebrates. I believe these same ethical principles should be applied to all research animals. I think it is a classic mistake to consider invertebrate animals as lesser because of something as arbitrary as a not having a spine. Cephalopods, for example, can exhibit surprising intelligence. Imagine a case in which research is being performed on an octopus or a cuttlefish, two of the most intelligent cephalopods. Shouldn’t the researchers be expected to consider how their experiment could harm these animals? It seems logical to me that these animals deserve the same consideration as the vertebrates that are covered in the ASA’s ethical principles.

This leads to another intriguing consideration: does the intelligence of the animal subject matter at all when considering the ethical obligations of the research? I am honestly not sure of my opinion regarding this question. My initial reaction is no, there shouldn’t be any difference between the way we treat animals in research no matter what we grade their intelligence level as. On further reflection however, I think there might be some more extensive considerations that researchers should take into account when dealing with smarter, more aware animals. Thus, I believe that more careful experimental design should be taken with consideration to intelligence as opposed to the presence of a spine.

week 9: Copyright Issues

After reading the article Copyright law affects course readings it really made me consider the way that we use material in courses and the considerations that teachers need to employ when they present copyrighted material to their class. In general I have always felt that material presented in the classroom for learning purposes should be free. As a student I have felt resentful of the textbook industry that continually produces new editions of texts with unnoticeably minor changes just so that they can continue to force students to buy new books instead of reusing the textbooks that are available used. I always appreciated when teachers would provide readings or excerpts from texts so that the financial burden was not passed to the students to pay for another book. It is also important to recognize the massive amount of waste that is produced in the printing of new textbooks as well as the waste of old editions that end up the trash or the energy required to recycle them.

On the other side of the issue, however, I understand that there is a very significant amount of work that goes into creating learning materials and that the authors, and to some extent the publishers, deserve to be compensated for their work. As educators we must deal with the delicate balance between easing the financial burden that the education system, especially in the United States, places on students and not ignoring the issues of copyrights and the compensation that the owners of those rights deserve. One of the things that the article alludes to is the complication that the age of the internet brings to this issue. The lines that distinguish copyrighted material have become blurred. The ability to search for material online and the lack of clear attribution of that material can make it difficult to decide what material is “fair-use” and what needs to have permission for use in the classroom. Furthermore, the ability to access and download material illegally has also changed the system. In this case, I don’t necessarily think that it should be the teachers job to regulate how their students acquire material when they are outside of the classroom, but I do think that it is something they need to be aware of.

I think that another important point to bring up with regards to copyright issues and courseware is the open courseware movement. Many educators are creating material that is free to use and share. I believe that the more that teachers become aware of these materials and contribute their own time to creating and sharing material we can change the financial burden that students face. Using open courseware and leveraging the power of the internet, we can create free material for students and teachers around the world to use without having to worry about understanding or violating the numerous copyright laws around the world.

Week 8: Final Project

Open access is a concept that I had not really thought about until becoming a graduate student. I remember struggling to find articles that I had access to as an undergraduate student and just assuming that pay walls were part of the system and that there wasn’t much that I could do to change the way that scholarly articles were published. As a graduate student, however, I have learned that the researcher actually has some control over where they publish and also how they choose to share the data used in their research. I believe that this topic is important in an ethical sense because of the duty that researchers have in getting their work distributed to the public and in allowing other researchers to verify their results.

My final project will be an exploration into how much different members of the Mechanical Engineering Department know about open access issues. I will interview undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty in the hopes of gaining an understanding of how much each group knows about open access. I am also interested in the perception of responsibility to disseminate knowledge. I would like to understand how each group feels about how research gets distributed and who they feel is responsible for the process. Finally I would like to get a sense of how many people plan to, or have published their work in open access journals and what that experience was like.

I personally feel that open access publishing is a very important step in the evolution of academia. Universities have a responsibility to share the knowledge that they create. The current trend towards a few publishing companies controlling the majority of academic journals threatens the ability of everyone to have access to the available research. This is especially true for schools that do not have the financial stability of the larger, well-known universities. My long-term goal with this project is to gain an understanding of how to better educate and promote open access in the next generation of academics.

Week 7: Authorship

After watching the TED Talk by Ausitn Kleon, Steal Like An Artist I felt like he did a great job of presenting the issues that accompany authorship. Near the end of his talk he presents two slides that I think really exemplify the most important ideas when thinking about what we take from others work and incorporate into our own work.

Image taken from TED Talk by Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist”
Image taken from TED Talk by Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist”

When we take an idea and transform and apply it in new ways we are creating something new and expanding the body of knowledge and understanding that currently exists. I think this is what he meant when he said that “transformation is flattery” and in an ethical framework, transformation is ethical. Imitation on the other hand does not create anything new or expand any body of knowledge or understanding. Imitation is not only not flattery, but it is also not ethical.

Is there really such a thing as a completely unique idea? I think the answer is probably not. Everything that we create is influenced by other peoples ideas. This is just part of the human condition. The important thing is that instead of presenting ideas as completely unique, we give credit to the people and their ideas that influenced us. One of the challenges with this that I find interesting is when we have an idea that we came to on our own, but has been presented before or has some obvious influences that we are not aware of. Although we came to the idea on our own, it is still our responsibility to look at what other people have done and still give them credit when appropriate. In academic settings this is part of the literature review process. We should seek out as much information on particular research as possible. Understanding what has already been done not only allows us to avoid ethical dilemmas, but also provides the maximum amount of material for transforming ideas into new creations.

Week 6: Ethics of University Rankings

After reading the resources about citation methods and tools in this weeks module, I started looking for some recent news articles about citation issues in academia. What ended up catching my interest was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about university rankings. The article was specifically in response to the recent rankings publication in QS which can be found here. I thought that it brought up some interesting points and I wanted to share my thoughts.

I remember during my senior year of high school looking at the US news rankings of colleges and universities when I was trying to decide where to apply. I had honestly not really thought much about college before this point and having some resource to guide me was a really helpful starting point. At this time in my life I was not yet aware of how subjective these rankings were. As I have continued my education and especially as a graduate student, I have come to realize how subjective and often flawed these rankings are. In my specific case, other factors dictated where I actually ended up applying and attending.

In the article the author brings up some of the specific issues with QS and the methods that they use to create their rankings. I think that one of the most concerning issues that the author brought up was the commercial aspect of the rankings and how a university can essentially pay for a higher rank. The quote below is from the article in the Chronicle:

“QS offers paid consulting services to improve a university’s ranking, as well as paid “guidance” for university leaders. Indeed, the enterprise is so brazen that it effectively sells rating approval for a price.”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

It seems obvious that this is an ethical issue for the organization that produces rankings. As a student I would not trust a ranking that was subject to these serious questions related to the ethics of their methods. The real problem, however, is that before becoming a graduate student and exploring the issues related to higher education, I would have never realized that this was something I needed to be aware of.

The other really important aspect of rankings that I never considered before reading the article, but can personally relate to, is how international students rely on university rankings. Leiter writes:

“Millions of students in Asia, Africa, and South America seek advanced education; in many cases, their home countries will fund some or all of their graduate studies. These students have little way of gauging what is on offer abroad; hence the incentive for the global rankers. The university-rankings industry preys on the least-informed students and on the universities desperate for their tuition revenue”

-Brian Leiter, Academic Ethics: To Rank or Not to Rank?

As a high school student I relied on university rankings to give me an idea of universities and so I can relate to the international students who are also using the rankings to find universities. This made me realize that although I disagree with the overall philosophy of rankings, there is a need for students to be able to compare different schools and the programs that they offer. I think that the real solution to this problem is getting away from numerical raking systems that are based on subjective measures and often do not accurately represent student experiences. If instead students were given qualitative comparisons and were encouraged to explore specific programs that are offered, I believe students would be much happier and more successful. It is much more important to attend a university at which a student feels valued, has a culture that they fit in with and curriculum that aligns with their goals as opposed to attending a university simply due to a high website ranking.

Week 5: Academic Fraud and Collegiate Sports

The following post is written in response to the following articles:

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

 New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

There was an interesting decision announced by the NCAA last month to not impose any punishments against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) for the academic fraud that was committed in a decades long practice of offering courses that were not commensurate with the academic standards of university coursework. These  courses were known as “paper classes” and the courses had no attendance stipulations and,  “required only a single research paper, which she [Deborah Crowder] graded without much regard to their quality” (Bauer-Wolf). This clearly is not the academic standards that are expected from a well known and accredited university. I felt like this example was a demonstration of why not only having, but also enforcing an honor system is crucial. Clearly there was a breakdown in the system in terms of having some verification/validation of courses, assuming that the university administration was not involved in the scandal directly.

The NCAA became involved in the scandal because there were claims that the courses were specifically marketed to athletes to boost their GPAs and help them maintain NCAA eligibility. The following quote from the article by Bauer-Wolf summarizes the NCAA concerns:

At its core, the NCAA was examining whether UNC had violated the association’s restrictions on “extra benefits,” which refers to certain advantages, such as financial payments or academic assistance, that are offered to athletes but not the wider student body.

A law firm’s 2014 report commissioned by the university did find that nonathletes also benefited from the classes. That report, which cited a “woeful lack of oversight” and a culture that confused academic freedom with lack of accountability, concluded that more than 3,100 UNC students enrolled in the courses. About half of those in the 188 faux classes were athletes. Investigators concluded that university employees were aware of the fraud and actively steered athletes and other struggling students to those courses.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

It is clear that the university violated standards of academic integrity. What is less clear is how the university should be punished for these violations. The decision by the NCAA, however, seems to show that they do not think they are the organization that should be creating or enforcing the punishments. I think that it is certainly an issue that is much broader than just the NCAA, but I think in this case they should have stepped up and punished UNC for their obvious violations. It seems clear to me that the systems were created to intentionally assist students in satisfing the NCAA eligibility rules.

I think that it is important to consider how universities should be punished for these violations. The first thing that comes to my mind is the university accreditation. This is relevant in this case as reported in Inside Higher Ed:

Instead, the NCAA will forward its decision to the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges [SACSCOC], which can address academic inconsistencies. Previously, the body had placed the university on a yearlong probation in 2015, ending in 2016, for violating seven accreditation standards, one of them being academic integrity. It was the strongest punishment the accreditor could deliver besides revoking accreditation entirely.

Jeremy Bauer-Wolf: Inside Higher Ed: NCAA: No Academic Violations at UNC

I do agree that involving SACSCOC is important in this case, however it brings up some complex issues. Accreditation is university wide and affects students from the undergraduate level all the way up through full professors. I’m not arguing that SACSCOC should not be involved, however, should all of the students have to face consequences and a diminished reputation because of the behavior of those who contributed to this scandal? I think this is where the NCAA was in a unique position, they could have really punished the university and helped promote a change in the culture surrounding collegiate athletics without punishing the entire university population.

I believe that the NCAA failed to act in a case that was obvious and egregious. This point is made very clearly by Dr. Gerald Gurney in a quote featured in the New York Times article referenced above.

“If ever there was a case of academic fraud, North Carolina would have to be the poster child — the longevity and the outrageous behavior to keep athletes eligible through systematic fraud,” said Gerald Gurney, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and past president of the Drake Group, which seeks to reform college athletics. “And it leads one to the absolute conclusion that this finding sanctions academic fraud among our institutions for the purpose of keeping athletes eligible.”

New York Times: N.C.A.A.: North Carolina Will Not Be Punished for Academic Scandal

I am really unsure of how this issue is going to be resolved and how other institutions are going to react to this scandal. I am reminded of the interactive movie The Lab in which various members of a research team are faced with investigating and confronting academic misconduct in their own lab. The exercise shows how being aware of misconduct and ignoring the issues instead of reporting or addressing them makes those involved liable for consequences that result. I think that in the case of the UNC incident, there had to be many students and faculty that were at least somewhat aware of the “paper classes” that were being taught, or not taught in this case. Now that UNC has been exposed they are all in danger of suffering from the consequences of these actions, even though they were not directly participating. I think the lesson here is that we are all responsible for creating and maintaining integrity in our lives and in the institutions with which we associate.

Week 4: Graduate Honor System

After reading through the Virginia Tech Graduate Honor System policies and also some of the other documents about the policy, I found that overall the policy makes a lot of sense and I feel that it does a good job of trying to be fair to students. Often times academic misconduct can occur without students expressly trying to break rules or cheat. I think that it is very important to examine each case on an individual basis. Furthermore, the policies allow for students to learn from their mistakes and does not blindly expel students who violate the policy.

One of the statements in the supporting documentation that I felt conveyed the sentiment of the VT Graduate Honor System is quoted below.

“Virginia Tech’s Graduate Honor System allows that the human condition is not perfect and that a student faced with the consequences of a questionable moment has a rare opportunity to reexamine the decisions that led to the violation.”

-Hierarchies of the Virginia Tech Honor Code: Twenty Years of Case Studies of the Graduate Honor System

This reminds me of the idea of restorative justice. This is the concept that justice is served by fixing the mistake that was made and thus “restoring” the previous state of what was harmed. The decision to allow a student to reflect on a mistake and work to improve their behavior allows them to right the wrong that they committed. At the end of the day, I think that the world is better off working with people and allowing them opportunities to learn and grow. This doesn’t mean that there should not be a punishment or that violations of the Honor System should not be taken seriously.  I simply think that by expelling students, especially those with no history of infractions, we miss an opportunity to educate and improve the moral character of a student. Moreover, I think that people make honest mistakes and so systems should always be designed to allow for flexibility and to avoid absolute rules and punishments.

Another facet of the VT Graduate Honor System that I think is really important, and unfortunately not thought about as much as teaching, is the policies regarding teaching standards. I am glad to see that included in the Honor System are policies about how graduate students should conduct themselves when teaching and grading material. One of the statements that I have seen violated is the following:

“neglecting to properly grade submitted material”

– Article 1, section 3, 3. Falsification

I know that graduate students often have many commitments and people trying to get them to focus on a multitude of tasks. It is a full-time job and comes with lots of stress. However, when grading material graduate students should always think about what the proper amount of effort is always do their best to grade assignments with care and patience. As an undergraduate student, I had several graduate student TA’s that would not really read through lab reports or actually go through assignments and instead just give everyone the same grade, usually an A to avoid any complaints. As an undergraduate student I felt like I was being deprived of learning opportunities and meaningful feedback. I would work hard on writing lab reports and I genuinely wanted to know what I was doing well and what I needed to improve on. As a teaching assistant, I spent a great deal of time grading lab reports, but it was important to me to provide that feedback and do my best to help students improve.

I am also glad the the Honor System has policies that are meant to protect teachers and acknowledge that sometimes TA’s make mistakes even when they are trying their best to grade honestly and fairly. One of the statements that stood out to me was the following:

“Likewise, misconduct in teaching does not include honest disagreement over the method of presentation of instructional material to a class or in the evaluation of the performance of a student.”

– Article 1, section 3

I think that as students and as teachers we need to always remember that often there is no absolute truth. Our ultimate goal is to learn from each other and to create communities of people who can mutually benefit from the knowledge that we acquire and share. The VT Honor System is a great framework to create an environment in which students and teachers are treating each other with respect and conducting themselves with integrity. Having this type of environment is crucial to creating people who contribute to a successful society.

Week 3: Integrity in Authorship

When I was going through the reading, “Becoming a Scientist,” I was especially intrigued by the section about authorship. The complex issue of how credit is distributed for work on scientific articles is very interesting and I think that there are some parts of the system which make a lot of sense and help to create fair results. Other parts of the norms of authorship, however, perpetuate some of the power structures that plague academia and I think that as the next generation of researchers, we need to actively create change in the standards of the system as they stand.

As an undergraduate student, I was not aware of the importance of publishing to the career of an academic. When I began graduate school, I was a bit shocked to discover the degree to which entering an academic career relied upon publishing and the importance of where your name falls in the list of authors in a paper. As I learn more about this system, I have realized that it is important to have a system for acknowledging the various contributions that lead to a publication. In this sense, I think that the journals in which authors are listed in order of contribution seem to create a fair system.

In contrast, I think that cases in which, “the head of a research group is an author on almost every paper associated with the group” have the potential to create a very unfair system. If the head of a research group is not contributing a significant amount of work towards a publication, I think that it is misleading (at best) to include them as an author. As students we need to become comfortable about having conversations with our superiors about authorship. I think that this not only creates a more fair system, but also creates a more collaborative environment. Researchers, advisors, and heads of research groups are highly incentivized to publish. If one makes it clear that the expectation is that anyone listed as an author on a paper must make significant contributions to the work, I think it is likely that they will receive more help from these people because they benefit greatly from being listed as an author.

I realize that I am still very early in my career in academia and that some of these challenges are not easy to solve. I believe, however, that if we as academics do not recognize the parts of the publishing system (or the academic machine as a whole) that we are not happy with and actively work to change them, those things will just continue and no change will occur.