govandteachers

Blaming Government for Teacher and Scientist Failures in Integrity

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The article, “Governmental policy is wrecking science,” makes some interesting points but is fundamentally in error, because government policy is only a small part of the problem. Government is depending on scientists and teachers to police students and each other regarding scientific and academic integrity.  To a harmful extent, scientists and teachers are failing to effectively carry out this trust.

Scientist FailuresCatching plagiarism has gotten much easier in the past few years due to automated detection software.  Students are having a hard time fooling it. Most scientific publishers are using it now.  But it only works if teachers use it.

Catching fake data is often straightforward, but it requires paying attention and running a few statistical and possibly other tests. Back in 2008, my wife and I caught errors in a biomechanics paper and published a reply because it was obvious in the graphs that the data violated the Work-Energy theorem. My wife and her colleagues recently published a comment pointing out data dishonesty in an important bone paper. Something smelled fishy, so she asked me to read it. I agreed and encouraged her to dig deeper. She dug up the Master’s thesis with the original data and uncovered the sleight of hand. In 2010, I caught an atomic physics paper that had copied several paragraphs verbatim (without attribution) from one of my papers from the 1990s. Instead of a retraction, the editors let it slide with a corrigendum and citation after the fact.

We also caught errors in the weight-length data at Fishbase.org and published a paper on it in 2010 or 2011. In this case, my wife alerted me that something was afoul, and some cadets at the Air Force Academy made a project out of it under my oversight.  The database editors villified us for pointing it out, but they have since gotten a lot better at error checking and correction. We later traced most of the errors to a single source: one of the most cited handbooks on freshwater fisheries biology.

Similarly, we caught a number of both scientific and statistical errors in a 2011 Fishery Bulletin paper on magnetoreception in fish.  The editor published an erratum correcting the statistical errors, but declined to publish our comment pointing out the unsupported claims in the abstract and other scientific errors.  There was no suggestion our comment was wrong, but the journal simply has an editorial policy of not publishing comments that bring to light scientific errors in their papers.  Refusing to publish corrections for clear scientific errors is a failure of scientific integrity that falls on scientific authors and editors rather than government.

Not every correction needs to happen in the public arena. When erroneous or falsified data have been published, then a public correction is appropriate and may be the only way to prevent propagation of the error. However, sometimes a correction can be made timely to avoid a public error. For example, my wife was reading a paper in her field of research that was available online in “pre-print” form prior to publication. She noticed an error in the results tables and contacted the primary author privately in case there was time to correct it before others in the field would be evaluating and applying the results. Happily, in that situation the author thanked my wife and confirmed that there was time to correct the error prior to final publication. Within research groups, we can help each other by evaluating data critically – not to undermine any individual but to help maintain both scientific integrity and the reputations of all involved by sharing the goals of correct results and appropriate interpretation.

However, colleagues and I have also had numerous situations where we’ve pointed out scientific or academic error or misconduct and nothing was done. In addition to having letters to journal editors ignored in cases of clear published errors, there is also a battle for integrity in the schools.  The absence of negative feedback has the effect of training students in poor behavior early on.  We learned of a student texting answers to other students during a science test. The student admitted doing so, but refused to name others (recipients of the texts). The department of the North Carolina public school refused to investigate further or attempt to find out who benefited from the cheating. Not even the admitted cheater received any consequence.  We’ve seen a pattern of failures in academic and scientific integrity in North Carolina (such as the UNC athlete cheating scandal).

When I taught at the Air Force Academy, things were handled better. Even if the process failed to bring a disciplinary consequence to the student, an academic consequence could be brought by the instructor and department head by meeting a more-likely-than-not standard of evidence. The Math department head always supported a teacher recommendation of a zero for cheating on any graded event.

When I ran a cadet research program, I terminated cadet participation in the research program immediately and permanently when it became clear that a student had faked data or otherwise committed academic dishonesty. Even when a superior (not in the math department) recommended a gentler approach to allow for a “learning experience,” I terminated participation in the program, because I thought a firmer response was needed to bring the lesson home and protect the integrity of the program.

I have a sharp eye for data, and I run a number of statistical and common sense checks on student data and analysis. I may be the only professor I know who repeats student analysis at every step in most projects under my supervision. I have developed a good sense for what “too good to be true” looks like and what kinds of uncertainties can be expected given the experimental conditions and sample sizes. In my mentoring of science projects, students know from the beginning that I have zero tolerance for violations of academic and scientific integrity, and that I am double checking their data and analysis closely.

It is interesting to note that the original article cites Ernst Haeckel but fails to note his well known fraudulent embryo drawings.  I recall stirring up controversy in a guest lecture to a biology class in the last decade by pointing out their modern day textbook was still using the errant Haeckel drawings.  The drawings and the associated recapitulation theory have been considered in error for over 100 years, so it is something of a mystery how they can appear in modern textbooks without hordes of teachers and scientists objecting.

If you teach laboratories, what consideration have you given to making it harder for students to fake data?  I mentor a number of students on ISEF-type research projects and undergraduate research, so I get their feedback frequently on how their lab science classes are going.  Some of their teachers are really getting out in front of scientific integrity by designing lab experiments with an auditable data path from the original execution of the experiment to the graded lab report. This approach is analogous to requirements some journals and funding agencies have that data be published in a repository.  In some cases, lab instructors are even requiring students to take pictures while executing experiments.  It’s much harder to fake data if there are time stamped data files with the original data as well as time stamped pictures of the experiment in progress.  Sure, someone will be smart enough to fool any accountability system, but putting a good system in place keeps students from thinking they somehow have tacit approval to manufacture data, because they don’t just need to fake the data, they need to intentionally subvert the accountability system.

It’s too easy to blame the government.  They have entrusted matters of academic and scientific integrity to the diligence of teachers and scientists. We should all be doing our part in our respective areas of work to maintain integrity.  How many scientists and students have you busted in the past decade?

 

 

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  1. Fervent Freyja
    Fervent Freyja says:

    Though I suppose you could argue that someone who cheats is much more likely to be lazy/complacent.

    Or they feel entitled.

    Over a dozen members from one of my universities athletic teams were cheating on both lab and lecture exams in one course. I went forward, with plenty of reason and some evidence. The 2nd lab group had tried to get me to tell them answers to the open-answer lab exam and I was straight out told they were texting answers to each other not long after. Weeks went by, nothing happened to them, except that it only became even more and more obvious. So, one day, when one of them basically outted themselves while reviewing lecture exam results, I couldn't help but say something to the class to let them know was going on. I got into trouble, not the cheaters. *I* was reported to that dean for my behavior. He really didn't take anybodies side on it, it was more about the way I reacted to that and a few other occasions. I admit that I behaved inappropriately and overreacted, even made some faculty members cry (from another incidence). But, since I keep getting into trouble for things like that, I'm not saying anything ever, ever again. Ever. Let them cheat, I don't care anymore what they do. F it.

    My lab partners & I were recently comparing prior courses and teachers. They said that one teacher had always been easy for them, I insisted they had been challenging for me and thought they were either nuts, or something must be wrong with me! Just this last week, he starts talking to the group about 'googling test keys'  for an exam in this course and the other one admits to doing it too, as if there is nothing at all wrong with that! So, I'm thinking, "oh, I see now"! That's why it was so easy for them! Never pay attention to someone who brags about an A, not all of them are earned equally! There is something wrong with the way they think! They seem to instantly think of short-cutting it without even attempting to learn the material first! If I'm not doing well, then I will either amp it up or drop the course! Someone who cheats isn't interested in learning, they don't see it as important or as if anything is wrong with cheating at all!

  2. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    I don't see a simple solution to it.  @Dr. Courtney  above,  seems to think it is up to the educators to police things,  but I think this problem could be far bigger than any one of us.  If basic morals aren't instilled into people at an early age,  I think we are all going to pay a huge price for it.  By the time they reach college age,  it is very hard to change anything.

    But high school teachers can use the same excuse, blaming the quality of the students they are getting on junior high school, and junior high can blame the elementary schools.  Everyone blames the parents.  If an auto company makes bad cars, are struggles with materials and parts suppliers sufficient excuse to sell the bad cars?  Then why is the quality of the input material an excuse to keep cashing paychecks from the taxpayer and passing students who have not learned?

    Some time ago, a core group of STEM teachers I am close to decided that regardless of the quality of the students that arrived on the first day of class, we alone were responsible for the quality of each and every student to whom we awarded a passing grade.  Integrity demands that each student awarded a C must be proficient in at least 70% of the learning objectives, 80% for a B, and 90% for an A.  Not that grading is an exact science, but this core group of teachers decided that to the best of our professional abilities and judgment, we would design and execute courses where the only passing students would be proficient in all the things downstream teachers or employers would reasonably expect them to know based on our course descriptions and syllabi.

    We learned to judge how we were doing not by student evaluations or success rates in our classes, but how well students who passed our classes performed in downstream courses for which our courses are a prerequisite.  Our student success rates in downstream courses have been phenomenal.

    It is really as simple as this, but I would be lying if I pretended it was easy.  In many places, a simple attempt to execute the above two paragraphs will have students, other faculty, and the administration at war with you shortly after mid-term grades come out.  When individuals from our core group of STEM teachers who stick to this plan start a new teaching job, we have less than a 50% chance of being retained the second year.  In some cases, teachers had the second half of contracts paid in full after being removed from the classroom and being replaced by shills who would work something out to pass the vast majority of students regardless of how much they have learned.  But for us, it is the Golden Rule.  Since we recognize the mistakes and failures of other teachers and other institutions passing such poor quality students on to us, we would be hypocrites if we continued the trend and just passed them on to others.  Students must earn their grades, or it ends here.

    This core group of STEM teachers talks frankly about academic rigor and our intentions in the interview and hiring process.  In exit interviews, these faculty members have been told by deans things like "a lot of people from the northeast talk that way, but we expect them to change once they see how things are really done here."

  3. Vanadium 50
    Vanadium 50 says:

    , a simple attempt to execute the above two paragraphs will have students, other faculty, and the administration at war with you shortly after mid-term grades come out

    True that.

    There is a bifurcation in university philosophies.  A small number – not all in the northeast and not all the ones in the northeast – see the student primarily as the product.  A much larger number see the student primarily as the customer.  There the value proposition is "you borrow a ton of money, give it to us, and we'll make sure your classes don't interfere with beer, sex or football, and after four of five years we'll give you a credential".  The problem is that this credential is dropping in value faster than the Venezuelan Bolivar.  Employers are seeing a difference in value between a Category A school degree (not all Ivy – I would put places like Carnegie-Mellon and Carlton in that category) and a Category B school degree.

  4. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    True that.

    There is a bifurcation in university philosophies.  A small number – not all in the northeast and not all the ones in the northeast – see the student primarily as the product.  A much larger number see the student primarily as the customer.  There the value proposition is "you borrow a ton of money, give it to us, and we'll make sure your classes don't interfere with beer, sex or football, and after four of five years we'll give you a credential".  The problem is that this credential is dropping in value faster than the Venezuelan Bolivar.  Employers are seeing a difference in value between a Category A school degree (not all Ivy – I would put places like Carnegie-Mellon and Carlton in that category) and a Category B school degree.

    Nailed it.  I've felt like the voice of one crying in the wilderness for over a decade now.

    Science and Engineering Education: Who is the Customer?

    This is by far my most important educational paper.  No one will publish it but arXiv.  No one reads it, no one cites it, no one hardly cares.

    This is the most important educational issue of our time.

  5. Vanadium 50
    Vanadium 50 says:

    The question I have is why don't these students see learning as both a challenge and an adventure?

    Because they're teenagers.

    I once felt that people should not in general be allowed to go to college straight out of high school.  If they felt they were exceptionally ready, they could petition for it.  However, if you take a look at the Category A schools, they all demand this.  They may call it an essay or an interview, but that's what they are doing.  Students who say "I'm happy to learn, so long as it doesn't cut into my time for beer, sex and football" tend not to be admitted.  MIT requires this – from four people!  (Applicant, two teachers and usually the interviewer)

    This is the most important educational issue of our time.

    Why?  We used to have a society when a small fraction went to college and a large faction did not.  We are evolving towards a system where many people go to college, but only a small fraction learn anything and the remainder go to a 4-year long state-subsidized party.   We can surely argue whether subsidizing people to attend Faber College or its real world counterparts is a good use of society's money, but what is the actual harm in four years of wrapping themselves in bed sheets and pouring grain alcohol over their heads?

    I think the only real dangerous proposal is mandated graduation rates.  If the federal government mandated that 90% of manufactured cars had to be sold, no matter how many defects they had, there would be an outrage.

  6. Drakkith
    Drakkith says:

    The question I have is why don't these students see learning as both a challenge and an adventure?

    Because they're teenagers.

    I'd go one step further and say, "Because they're people and the vast majority of people do not work like that."

  7. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    Why?  We used to have a society when a small fraction went to college and a large faction did not.  We are evolving towards a system where many people go to college, but only a small fraction learn anything and the remainder go to a 4-year long state-subsidized party.   We can surely argue whether subsidizing people to attend Faber College or its real world counterparts is a good use of society's money, but what is the actual harm in four years of wrapping themselves in bed sheets and pouring grain alcohol over their heads?

    I think the only real dangerous proposal is mandated graduation rates.

    The administrators who force teachers to pass students who haven't earned it are making those mandates to increase retention and graduation rates.

    But I should have been clearer in my earlier post, when I wrote, "This is the most important educational issue of our time" I mean the general problem through all grades of passing students who have not met the requirements promised to the accrediting agencies, etc.  I think you interpreted it only in terms of college.  My earlier statement that

    a simple attempt to execute the above two paragraphs [not gifting grades] will have students, other faculty, and the administration at war with you shortly after mid-term grades come out

    This applies equally strongly in high schools today as it does in college.  About half of the STEM teachers who lost their jobs for refusing to compromise academic integrity were high school teachers, not college professors.

    But if college professors would only pass the students who truly master the material and earn their grades, this would exert tremendous downward pressure on the high schools, jr highs, and elementary schools to improve imparting honesty, skills, and work ethic.  I recall my 4th grade math teacher spanking me in the hallway for lying about completing my math homework.  She always told us we'd be digging ditches if we didn't learn math.

    But since most K-12 teachers today have graduated from colleges that gift grades, they no longer believe that honesty, hard work, and mastery of the material in the syllabus and course descriptions are really required to succeed in college.  Consequently, even though they are guilty, their consciences do not see a problem sending along students who are unprepared for what should be coming next, because they no longer have the convictions of my 4th grade math teacher.

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