Scientific Misconduct: Truth and Power (& Stupidity)

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. Instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views … which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”
Doctor Who in “Face of Evil”

I recently finished creating a short presentation on plagiarism (postings to follow soon). The last review I did had some … ugly instances of plagiarism in it, and we wanted to make it a topic in a work-group meeting. Given that I hate “let’s just talk about it” meetings, I created a 50+ slides presentation.

Frankly, the whole issue is very depressing — there are no winners. Even if parts of the competition self-implode due to scientific misconduct, the whole discipline suffers. One of the most depressing things I have read was a comment in an article by Luke and Kearins (2012):

“Bartlett and Smallwood (2004) examine the various ways plagiarism has been identified, and the various means used to overlook it. Further, they note the increasing range of disciplines in which academic plagiarims [sic] occurs (spanning information systems, geography, history and management), despite the notion held by some that it wouldn’t happen in ‘their discipline’.”
Luke and Kearins (2012)

Hmmm … “despite the notion held by some that it wouldn’t happen in ‘their discipline'” … huh, really?

This assertion always reminds me of a brilliant scene in “Citizen X”. After finding the corpses of 8 children and young women in a forest, all brutally murdered with the same modus operandi, and finding reports of 7 similar incidences in the records, the new forensic specialist informs a committee of politicians that there is a serial killer at large. Given that this is the Soviet Union during the cold war, the reaction by the most powerful person is the room is … well:

(you can see the whole scene on YouTube)

No serial killers in the Soviet State because it’s a ‘decadent Western phenomenon’? Tell that to the 8 mutilated corpses of women and children in the cellar.

No plagiarism in our discipline? Tell that to the scientists who get their guts torn out when they see that others steal their work and nobody seems to care.

Plagiarism not only lets unethical scientists advance, it discourages the honest ones. And in contrast to political assassinations few seem to care about normal paper submissions (although there are guidelines, e.g., cf. the flowcharts at COPE).

Yup, the video comparison is hyperbolic, but in both cases it shows what are — in the end — the consequences when ideology, image, public appearance, or whatever else strives to dictate the ‘facts’: Innocent suffer, just so that some people — the very powerful and the very stupid — can clap themselves on the back.


Referenced Literature

Luke, B., & Kearins, K. (2012). Attribution of words versus attribution of responsibilities: Academic plagiarism and university practice. Organization, 19(6), 881–889. doi:10.1177/1350508412448857