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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