Intellectual honesty and the quest for truth

A cursory Google search for the definition of research yields several statements that describe it as a “systematic investigation” that aims to discover and interpret facts, or revise “accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts.” My own interpretation of this endeavor, based on the meanings and definitions that have been taught to me and that I have encountered, characterizes research as a quest for truth.

As such, I have come to equate the conduct of research with honesty, in the same way that statements of truth are a natural consequence of the exercise of honesty. While I do realize that nothing and no one in this world is perfect, it is still disheartening to see statistics indicating the occurrence of ethical misconduct in research, because I feel that it defeats the purpose of research and undermines the efforts of everyone engaged in this endeavor.

In going over the case summaries in the ORI website, one name in particular caught my attention, because it looked culturally familiar to me. A former professor at Wayne State University in Detroit was found to have used falsified data in preparing five publications and three grant applications for which she served as main author. Specifically, the case involved the duplication, reuse, and false re-labeling of figures, and misrepresentation of these images as the output of different experiments.

The statement on professional ethics promulgated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and shared during last week’s class included several statements that the case I recounted above sadly violate. Three statements in particular stood out to me: 1) that the “primary responsibility” of professors is “to seek and to state the truth as they see it;” 2) that professors “accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge;” and 3) that professors “practice intellectual honesty.”

As a consequence of this misconduct, a retraction of 5 publications in 4 journals, published between 2009 and 2015, was executed. In addition, the professor submitted to a voluntary exclusion agreement that included exclusion from contracting or sub-contracting with any agency, as well as serving in any advisory capacity to the US Public Health Service, among other stipulations, for a period of three years.

I tried to search for a feature recounting the circumstances that led to this particular case, along the same lines as the article on Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who was also found to have falsified data, but I could not find any. Whatever the circumstances may have been, however, I do feel that there is no reason good enough to excuse such conduct.

One of the things that I noticed and would like to know more about, though, is the accountabilities of the co-authors. All the consequences seem to like squarely on the shoulders of the main author, which, in a way, makes sense; but what role did the co-authors play in the case? Did they also have to face consequences?

As a faculty member of a mainly teaching University, I do not have a strong connection with the need to publish, because this culture has yet to be a strong defining force in our rank and promotion structure. Because of this, I find it difficult to relate to a professional situation that will push a professor to falsify data just to be able to publish, as recounted by Dr. Stapel. All that aside, however, I believe that when it comes to intellectual honesty and the quest for truth, there is no gray area; it is our academic duty as professors, educators, and researchers to present only that which is true – no matter how difficult it may be.

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