Monthly Archives: April 2014

Case Study – Data Falsification

In my Preparing the Future Professoriate class, we’ve been discussing ethics, academic misconduct, and how that comes into play in the world of academia. If I’m on a college campus and I hear “ethics”, my mind immediately goes to plagiarism and discrimination. I feel like those two topics are covered over and over again. There are many more ways that ethics come into play in the world of academia. For example, bullying is becoming more common. Finally, one of the things that is hardest for me to understand is data falsification. I can reasonably come up with an explanation for the other types of misconduct (most of which can be boiled down to not knowing better), even if the excuses are thin. However, data falsification seems so intentional.

I read a case summary about Adam Savine, a psychology doctoral student at Washington University of St. Louis. He falsified data in some of his experiments, primarily by changing the results to make them more statistically significant. His consequences were not terribly intrusive. For a 3 year period, he is required to have his research supervised, any papers that he submits must be accompanied by certification from the university that the methods and data are accurate, and he must not attempt to serve in an advisory capacity to the USA Public Health Service. Considering the fact that he intentionally changed his data, it seems pretty mild to me.

It’s easy to be harsh in academic misconduct cases because I just don’t understand what gain you get from making up results. Even if you get more papers published, more power, and more money, you will always know that you cheated. I don’t see how the rest could be worth it. You would always be looking over your shoulder wondering if someone would figure out that you cheated. As a person struggling with Impostor Syndrome already, I don’t see why anyone would want to add a legitimate reason to feel like an impostor.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I began to realize that I have actually falsified data. For a brief period of time I was determined to become a chemical engineer. One summer of going to the sewage treatment plant and experimenting with sludge cured me of that desire. We were working to see if sludge could be recycled and used as bio-diesel.  In concept, it’s a really cool idea with a lot of applications, but for me, it was just incredibly boring. The graduate student that I was working with asked me to test a mass spectrometer to see if it could be used to analyze the specimens. At the time, I knew that I couldn’t really tell a difference from one sample to the next, but I really, really wanted it to work. If it worked, it meant that we could actually get some work done instead of floundering around trying to figure out how to do it. So I looked for the answers that I wanted…it was more subconscious than anything. But I still did it. Luckily, in that instance, they had no intention of actually using my work. We also quickly realized that we needed to run a blind study (so I couldn’t will the right numbers into being) and were able to confirm that there wasn’t really a difference between the samples.

Just like with plagiarism, I think there are definitely instances of willful data manipulation. But there are other instances (like my brief time as a ChemE) where you just really want something to happen and don’t consciously decide to do something wrong. I think it’s important to recognize this because it’s easy for me to make the decision to honestly describe the data that I’ve collected. However, my personal preferences and desires can easily influence my work. We all have to be careful not to let what we want affect the results that we report. 

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Open Access: Journal of Industrial Engineering

The Journal of Industrial Engineering is an open access journal in my discipline. It’s published through the Hindawi Publishing Corporation – a group founded in 1997 that currently publishes 434 open access journals across a variety of disciplines. Throughout the webpage, Journal of Industrial Engineering emphasizes the quality of the published material. There is a 12% acceptance rate and every paper is peer reviewed. Another point of emphasis by the journal is the fact that the journal allows for information to be easily disseminated.

The main purpose of the journal is to provide easy access to research within the field of Industrial Engineering while maintaining a high level of quality. Additionally, there is an uncompromising list of ethics standards for all publications. Violators of the standards will be prevented from submitting anything to the journal for at least 3 years. Journal of Industrial Engineering is clearly determined to set high standards.

There is also a section in which Journal of Industrial Engineering briefly explains the concept of open access. The key points that are covered is the fact that information can be easily shared through the open access model, and that everything is peer reviewed and high quality standards are met. It is interesting to me that it claims to provide “immediate” access to published works; however, the average time from article submission to publication is just under 4 months. That seems like a long time to be “immediate” access.

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Open Access and Laziness

Open access is a hot topic of conversation in the academic world. The key issues in conflict are the ideas of academic and scientific progress vs. high quality publications. Many of those in favor of open access such as Michael Eisen’s opinion editorial proclaim the necessity to share information as soon as it is gained so that progress can be quickly attained in all fields. Websites such as FoldIt have taken on this idea of using crowd-sourcing via the internet to solve complex problems that are seemingly unsolvable. For example, some internet gamers were able to solve a problem in just 3 weeks that had been studied by researchers for 10 years with no luck. However, the converse side of the discussion is the need for high quality publications. One such method of examining the quality of someone’s work is through peer review; scholars well-versed in the field read the paper to verify the scientific merit of the work. This takes time, as more than one scientist typically reviews the paper and it may not be at the top of his or her to do list. Eisen’s reaction to this problem is that peer reviewing should be minimized and peer reviewing should be completed after publishing rather than before. This would take a considerable chunk of time out of the process, getting the information to the public much more quickly. In theory, it’s a great idea. I do think open access is a good thing…but there are still some kinks to work out.

We also spent a good portion of our class last night discussing plagiarism. While sometimes it can be intentional and malicious, we also discussed how many times plagiarism occurs simply because people are lazy. They’re trying to do their work quickly and don’t take the time to make sure everything is done correctly – such as using their own words rather than copying someone else’s words. How does this laziness come into play with open access? I would venture a guess that even in cases that the general public has the knowledge to fully understand, they will not take the time to examine the validity of studies as they are published. One example of this is the debate over the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine that was hypothesized to cause autism. While recent research has shown no link between the two, it’s still a raging debate (just look at my Facebook news feed). People first heard that the vaccine could be dangerous, and they are not budging from that perspective even though there is credible evidence that shows that their position on the topic may need to be revisited. For me, this suggests the tendency of people to make initial impressions and stick with them even when they are outdated or proven wrong. If the academic world posts information for the general public to see, I really hope there is some type of check system in place to ensure the credibility of the work.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think open access is a good thing, but I don’t think publishing before reviewing is always the best approach. Perhaps we should take a look at the review process and work on ways to streamline that. Regardless, as long as people are lazy in their work, there’s a chance that sub-par papers will get submitted for publication…and as long as people are lazy in their information gathering, they may not do the research to examine quality on their own. There has to be some kind of happy medium to quickly disseminate high quality information to the public.

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3.2 for 32 – VT Remembers

Today I participated in a memorial run to remember the 32 people that were tragically killed on April 16, 2007. While I wasn’t a student here at the time, I had several friends that were, and hearing them talk about the impact that the shooting has on their life to this day is heartbreaking. However, one of the best things that we can do is remember those who lost their lives. Before writing this post, I wanted to remember in my own way, so I did some simple research about the events of that day. I was incredibly struck by the story of Liviu Librescu – a Holocaust survivor and VT professor at the time. Librescu barricaded the door to his classroom with his body and ultimately sacrificed himself so that his students could escape through the window. He was a man who had seen the worst of humanity, yet he still had enough faith in people to give himself up so that others could live. People like him remind me that even in the darkest times and the saddest tragedies, there is always hope.

Participating in the memorial run was special for me. I went there alone and somehow ran into two of my friends among the thousands of others that were there. It’s estimated that 10,000 people participated in the run today. While the events of April 16th, 2007 are still a tragedy, it was beautiful to see and feel the sense of community that surrounded the event. Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg community have rallied to bring light back into a dark place by making new memories while remembering the 32 people that couldn’t run with us today.

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