Ethics: The Case of Eric J. Smart

Breaches of ethics are unfortunately common in all fields, academia is no exception. In considering cases brought to the Office of Research Integrity, I found Eric J. Smart’s case interesting for the scale of misconduct. After investigating Smart, ORI found that:

Respondent engaged in research misconduct by falsifying and/or fabricating data that were included in ten (10) published papers, one (1) submitted manuscript, seven (7) grant applications, and three (3) progress reports over a period of ten (10) years. Respondent reported experimental data for knockout mice that did not exist in five (5) grant applications and three (3) progress reports and also falsified and/or fabricated images in 45 figures[.]

As a consequence of this misconduct, Smart entered a “Voluntary Exclusion Agreement” that lasts seven years (starting October 23, 2012). As per this agreement Smart excludes himself from “contracting or subcontracting with any agency of the United States Government and from eligibility or involvement in nonprocurement programs of the United States Government;” excludes himself  “voluntarily from serving in any advisory capacity to PHS including, but not limited to, service on any PHS advisory committee, board, and/or peer review committee, or as a consultant;” and requests the falsified publications be retracted or corrected.

The shear number of data, figures, and documents falsified and/or fabricated really struck me. Since I am at the very beginning of my academic career it is hard for me to imagine having 10 published papers at all, let alone 10 that are falsified. Every paper, article, book review etc. that I work on, I work very hard on and I can’t fathom intentionally fabricating or falsifying information in order to get published. With my dissertation looming, and along with it collection of data, I am hyper aware of the need to collect accurate information. Accusations of plagiarism or misconduct are an added stress that seems unnecessary given the already stressful process of honest scholarship.

The case doesn’t give details about why Smart chose to act unethically in so many cases but there are several reasons that occur to me. The first, and more charitable reading, is that Smart succumb to the pressures of publishing and productivity as a scholar and therefore cut corners in order to keep up and advance in his career. The less charitable read, and because  he committed misconduct in so many cases, is that he realized the shortcut to advancement (falsifying data) was getting him the results he wanted and he therefore continued at it until he got caught.

I believe the latter scenario would be less understandable than the former though neither would get Smart off the hook. I don’t know if there were other ramifications for Smart, such as loss of position at University of Kentucky, but those listed seem appropriate. It seems loss of position would also be appropriate given, again, the on-going pattern of misconduct he showed. It’s ironic that the person involved in this particular case is named “Smart”. Fabricating data on more than a dozen projects is anything but.

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