Whistleblowing for the Academy?

Do we need a whistleblowing system for scholars?

A recent video shows a policeman dropping a stun gun next to a citizen in the hopes of providing a false alibi. The governor of New Jersey is accused of creating traffic jams to punish a critic. A scientist retracts a paper due to fabricated data. Is it any wonder that public confidence in the accuracy of professional activities has been undermined? As professionals in the public eye, we, too, are subject to increasingly strident challenges regarding both our activities and our conclusions. Our output, our scholarly work, can be manipulated and distorted in fraudulent ways, although it’s not typically observable through the lens of a cell phone. For this reason, whistleblowing systems have been implemented in a number of professional jurisdictions.

Scholarly fraud includes both small and big acts – small ones, such as conveniently “adjusting” significance statistics, or failing to properly acknowledge authorship, as well as big ones, such as outright data fabrication and ghostwriting. The recent movie “big eyes’ reminded me that, in many cases, there are multiple parties at work contributing to scholarly fraud, both big and small. The movie tells the true story of a global fraud whereby the artist of those ubiquitous paintings of children with big eyes, so popular in the 70’s, was coerced into giving artistic credit to her husband, the penultimate salesman and showman.

Similar Unequal Power relations exist in our own academic environment, between advisors and advisees, between editors and authors, and between scholars with extensive reputations, and those just getting started. As in the movie “big eyes”, those relationships harbor significant opportunities for abuse, both subtle and manifest. Diederik Staple, the acknowledged data fabricator from the Netherlands, provided both the data and the analysis to a number of his doctoral students. While some of us might wonder how it is possible for a student to complete a PhD using their advisor’s data and analysis, we should remember that the power relations are such that mentees may be hesitant to question or feel trapped in their relationship, much like the big eyes artist Margaret Keen. However, as with Margaret, frequently both parties are participating in the fraud, and both have a vested interest in ensuring its continued success.

Our own AOM code of ethics makes it clear that fraud is unacceptable, and presumably extraordinary examples represent situations where the authors are clearly aware of the extent of their misrepresentations. This brings us to an important question:

What makes scholars commit fraud and how can we reduce these practices?

Clearly, the highly competitive nature of our environment increases the stakes. Careers are made and broken with publications. In the movie, big eyes, her husband seems to fall into asserting creative credit almost accidentally – with one small lie leading to a series of increasingly outrageous assertions. Reading the story of Staple, one gets a similar impression of a few small acts leading up to a systematic norm. Diederik rationalized his work by thinking ‘why spend the time collecting data when we know the outcome anyway’? All this would suggest that our goal as academicians should be not only to focus on the major examples of outrageous fabrications, but also to pay attention to the smaller events that may, in cases, lead down the road of scholarly fraud. While peer review is helpful in identifying some of the more extensive instances of fraud, it may fail to uncover the smaller incidents that lead up to patterns of behavior that we may be unknowingly rewarding. How can we manage these small events, effectively nipping ethical failure in the bud?

Education is certainly one important point of contact, but I would venture to guess that the policemen who dropped the stun gun was well educated in the correct laws and procedures of civilized law enforcement.

At AOM, we do our best to disseminate our code of ethics, and promote ethical conduct through our ethical seminars as well as blogs such as this.
However, as professionals, we continue to rely on self monitoring for the bulk of our ethical compliance. We have no systematic procedures in place to evaluate issues of ethical concern. While we do have the role of ombudsman at the Academy, the role is not designed to systematically ensure our ethical compliance. For that, we rely primarily on our own good intentions. However, unlike the community of law enforcers, who might be incentivized to keep a wall of silence, and so must also face outside inquiry boards of conduct, we, as academicians, have no systematic outside recourse. A recent blog posting by John R Thomas Jr. in retraction watch demonstrates the difficulties in applying a legal framework to false scholarship, and the implications of whistleblowing, an increasingly common practice. Thomas sums up a successful strategy for a false claims act proceeding as follows:

…“a viable FCA case involving scientific or research misconduct will involve objectively false information in a grant application or progress report. Someone at the institution must “know” that the information is false, which means that they actually know that it is false or are willfully blind or recklessly indifferent to the veracity of the statement. Finally, the false information must have the tendency or capacity to influence a grant decision.”

Currently, an offended and pressured doctoral student or junior colleague can only resort to the civil courts, a very expensive and largely unsuitable instrument for evaluating academic conduct.

How might a more progressive and responsive system operate? What could be done, professionally, both within and outside the Academy to both process and facilitate more transparent integrity? My hats go off to the writes of transparency watch. Their site is now supported by a US federal grant. Unfortunately, their portal fails to facilitate the small issues, the personal disagreements, and the power imbalances that exist in academic life. Presenting such material includes considerable legal liabilities that few professional institutions are willing or able to endure. But whistleblowing sites of all sorts are increasingly available .

To sum up,
We see whistleblowing systems in the corporate world and in public positions of influence including police, government,, tax and regulatory environments. What would an effective whistleblowing site for scholarly work look like, and how might it be developed? Who might be willing to sponsor such a site, and how effective might it be? Would AACSB be a possible sponsor? Grant agencies such as the NSF?

3 thoughts on “Whistleblowing for the Academy?”

  1. Very important and timely reflections, Benson. But I wonder if it’s whistleblowing we need. In the political domain, where we can expect an adversarial kind of criticism, there’s probably very much a need to expose actual fraud and other hidden misbehaviour. But in social science, it seems to me, we’re still too polite to make that the most pressing issue.

    Calling for whistleblowing in the academy misses the low-hanging fruit of improving the culture of criticism. Much of the problem with scholarship today is that claims that ought to be openly criticised are given a pass, even if they seem wildly implausible on the surface. It’s because we don’t have a working mechanism for catching unintentionally false claims that we hope falsehood in science is the result mainly of intentional fraud. It’s a vicious cycle, of course. If erroneous claims are hard to detect, fraudulent one’s are even harder.

    In short, by proposing whistleblowing as a solution, I worry that we’re misunderstanding the problem. It’s comforting to think that it’s the undiscovered active, ill-intentioned fraudsters that are the problem. For my part, I think it’s our passive, well-intentioned (polite and friendly) acceptance of carelessness that threatens science most.

  2. There is no one size fits all solution to problems of academic ethics. We have issues going on at many levels – student, faculty, editorial, professional, etc…I believe we need to begin making professional inroads into facing our conduct head on. As things stand, we are more apt to sweep things under our professional rugs than face them. Just as there is no single solution to ethical lapses in other public services – there will be no silver bullet for management scholars. Developing systems that acknowledge and deal with lapses are meant to provide examples of how not to behave by example, not necessarily to regulate behavior. Certainly, power relations between students and advisors, as well as editors and contributors, suggest the need for more transparency.

  3. I guess I’m thinking about this in terms of an economy of the energy we put into correcting scientific errors. I haven’t made up my mind about this, but I worry that we could use too many resources trying to fix a problem through whistle-blowing, that might be largely fixed as a side-effected of a change in the critical posture of the whole academy.

    To use your analogy of whistle-blowing about police misconduct. Some people argue that the solution is, not so much to have more scrutiny of police conduct, but to change the policing posture, especially in certain cities and neighborhoods. The long-term solution is to make the goals and procedures of policing less likely to foster (and even encourage by incentives) bad behavior, and more like to bring small “mistakes” to light.

    I’ve taken the issue up in a post of my own.

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