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.

Catching 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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46 replies
1. HAYAO says:

Thanks for your insights and views regarding the situation in Japan.  It is hard to suggest that the practical details should be the same in other cultures as in the US.  The goals should be the same (scientific honesty), but if the cultures are very different, then the paths and methods might be much different.

In the US, there are occasional claims that pressure to succeed can be blamed for scientific and academic dishonesty.  I do not buy that at all.  My wife and I have been at top 10 schools, military academies, big state schools, lower tier schools, liberal arts colleges, and high schools.  Sure there is pressure to succeed, but nothing that cannot be accomplished with hard work without resorting to dishonesty, cheating, or faking data.

Without fail, instances of cheating and faking data are attributable to several causes:

Thank you for sharing how things are in the States. It really helps understand the cultural differences between countries (although I've lived in the States as well).

Unfortunately, that is not the level of pressure some Japanese take in academics, especially in area like chemistry. It is really a form of harassment. Japanese workplace is known for being unnecessarily and impractically unreasonable with its style. The death and suicide rate due to overwork is terribly high compared to other countries. This has caught attention of public these days, hence the terms like "academic harassment", "power harassment", "maternity harassment", etc. has become a common knowledge shared among people. I'm pretty sure there are terms like "sexual harassment" in English, but other form of harassment seems to be almost purely of Japanese origin. The situation is that bad.

The form of labor tends to be even worse in academics of chemistry simply because the laws regarding labor does not apply to students. Of course that can be understood because they are there to study, not work. The problem is, there are a lot of labs that force students to work AT LEAST 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Most of the time, this time needs to be extended longer due to cultural issue that lower ranked employees should never go home earlier than their superiors. In my personal opinion, people should be allowed to go home anytime they want as long as they get their jobs done. It is stupid to stay only because they have to by rules. But no one can complain because culturally, lower ranked employees shall never question their superiors.

I've seen this so-called "academic harassment" where advisors physically and/or mentally attack their own students. I've seen students that leave college due to depression or never come to lab because they are afraid to do so. There is no motivation here. Only punishment. There is no such thing as "accomplishment". Some people have committed suicide. Despite such large number of people having problems, it never really surfaced because of such cultural restrictions until recently. In Japanese we call it "naki-neiri" which literally means "crying until they sleep", or in more comprehensible language, "not being able to do anything at all about some unreasonable things that happen". Those however do survive this typically have similar type of personality as their superiors, which is why the same thing repeats and have been repeating in Japan.

In such desperate situation, I do not think it is so unnatural that one will commit to some sort of misconduct in their research to escape punishment. The level of "pressure" I am talking about exceeds that of which can be explained by laziness, greed, and power.

By the way, for undergraduates and masters degree, scholarship is virtually nonexistent. Maybe 1 out of 200 students might be given $500 /month, which isn't even enough to live. The rest will have to rely on "scholarship loans" (which is technically not a scholarship). The situation slightly improves for Ph.D. course, but it is still extremely limited. Ph.D. course in Japan usually never involve even a single penny (it's the reason why there are very few Ph.D. students in Japan). Only handful will ever receive anything in their Ph.D. course, but that is limited to extremely capable person. I think for this reason, it really lacks motivation to do research. (Instead, they pay for people outside Japan to come over, which I think is really wrong.) 2. mheslep 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. As the money flowing into these mills is dependent on reputation, on the ability to grant a credential, then naming (more) names and placing them in A and B would seem to be the primary corrective. Faber College when known as such can't really be said to grant a credential, only a piece of paper. 3. Dr. Courtney says: As the money flowing into these mills is dependent on reputation, on the ability to grant a credential, then naming (more) names and placing them in A and B would seem to be the primary corrective. Faber College when known as such can't really be said to grant a credential, only a piece of paper. There is so much federal money flowing in (financial aid), that the inflow of cash is really much more strongly dependent on accreditation than on reputation. The student has control over the flow of a lot more money than he has personally invested. In most cases, not much thought is given to the real value (earning potential) associated with the diploma. Most Louisiana institutions are not much different from Faber College, yet the piece of paper qualifies most of their education graduates to teach K-12 in the Louisiana public schools. 4. mheslep says: There is so much federal money flowing in (financial aid), that the inflow of cash is really much more strongly dependent on accreditation than on reputation. The student has control over the flow of a lot more money than he has personally invested. In most cases, not much thought is given to the real value (earning potential) associated with the diploma. Yes controlled by the student was my point, that is, choice of where to spend that money. At the moment, there's not a severe penalty for attending a category B school, as V50 names them, because, I believe, they're not generally known by many employers to be Fabers. Replace a couple of those hopelessly ambiguous, 1 through 1000 college ranking publications with a simple A and B ranking, and I expect there will soon be a penalty for attending B in job prospects, followed by a shift in money flow, followed by …, followed by… Most Louisiana institutions are not much different from Faber College, yet the piece of paper qualifies most of their education graduates to teach K-12 in the Louisiana public schools. That's a start. I gathered that Tulane was an exception, a non-Faber. 5. Dr. Courtney says: That's a start. I gathered that Tulane was an exception, a non-Faber. I hope so. We did not have a hard look at Tulane, because it is a private school (expensive), and none of our teens or students we've mentored have expressed an interest or asked for our recommendation on it. Our A list schools in the SE US are: Rice, Texas A&M, UGA, GA Tech, Clemson, and U Florida. We have not had a hard look at Vandy, Tulane, or a few other schools that would probably make the A list if we did. But we have also noted a tremendous range of quality in the B list schools. A 3.9 GPA from the best B list schools might be preferred to a 2.5 GPA from some of the A list schools. 6. russ_watters says: 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. Yes, I agree it is an important subject/problem. I suspect that paper hasn't been published because while it is written in the format of a scientific paper, it isn't one. Have you considered re-packaging it as an article and submitting it to, say, The Economist? Following your line of reasoning (following the money), it makes a lot of sense when you look at college campuses and see dining halls, stadiums, student centers and gyms that are spectacular and classroom buildings that are crap. This clearly indicates that according to the school, providing a quality education just isn't what college is for: college is for the social experience. So who's fault is that? While it is tempting to blame it on the schools because they pick where to spend their money, so their control is direct, I don't think that's the right target: the customer is always right, which means that if the customer is wrong, it's the customer's fault. Schools that fail to provide what the customer asks for lose customers. Most kids are <18 when selecting a college to attend and <20 when selecting a major. These first meaningful decisions they make as adults are biggies and most choose poorly. So for that, I put the blame squarely on their parents. They should be pounding-in to their kids for ten years the end-game of all of that school up to the high school diploma: the goal is to pick a college and major that prepare you for a quality job. And they should do everything possible to not allow the kid to make the wrong decisions. Parents have a huge influence, whether they exercise it directly or not. From having the same religion, teen pregnancy, drug use/crime, kids take after their parents. My dad is/was an engineer/businessman. So I almost didn't even need to be taught what to do: the "right" path was there for me to see every day. But given that more and more people are going to college – while their parents didn't – there is an expectations gap caused by lack of a baseline to follow and failure of parents to teach their kids what path they should be taking. To put it succinctly: I think they think the endgame is getting into college, not what they will do once they get there. Because that is the exact point where their path diverges from their parents. 7. russ_watters 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? Maybe I missed your point or rhetorical, but the "actual harm" is the personal debt with nothing to show for it but the memories. Society may actually work better this way, maintaining stratification against artificial leveling, but for the individual who finds themself at age 30 with a hundred thousand dollars in debt and still paying the bills bartending, it's a tragedy. 8. Fervent Freyja says: A question that’s been on my mind for a while? Does micromanaging students during courses, in order to prevent cheating, negatively affect learning outcomes? If so, how much? Could streamlining (although effective) the courses to the degree we see today contribute to higher rates of cheating, as it gives them wider assess to cheating methods? Is there too much emphasis on the act of cheating and too little about their attitude towards learning? Maybe I’m too old-fashioned on the matter, but for many subjects I would rather have a textbook thrown at me, show up for lectures, actually discuss the material, have opportunities to do some actual personalized WORK, and be told to prepare for the worst at exams. Many courses today spent a lot of time hand-holding and the number of graded assignments for one course can be insane. Does making it obvious that students can’t be trusted actually discourage them from learning? Instead of nitpicking the topic of their undergraduate thesis, what might be delivered if a little more trust in the student was shown? I don’t believe that talking about one incident of a student cheating is assessing the whole picture here, nor can it be blamed totally on one entity. Sure, educators and institutions can be a part of it, but even maintaining excellent integrity at all levels doesn't address the reason a person cheats. All that does is address one incident. Cheating is a result of an attitude that likely occurs with other opportunistic behaviors that aren’t against policy or often border in a gray area. An opportunistic attitude can be thought to occur with a long-running set of behaviors that manifest and become cognitive habits far before they make it to post-secondary education. Habits are patterns and patterns prevail, this should be easier to predict in a student than it currently is- is there no way to measure the risk for new students? I believe the problem isn’t in a student cheating once, but a true cheater, a person with an opportunistic attitude, can be said to consistently partake in a host of opportunistic behaviors, including cheating, over a long period of time. I imagine there is a lot of forethought into some of the methods that are used. That seems like a lot of energy and stress. Do they not know any other way? To explain why I believe this, take for instance, that you prepare balance and income statements for a multi-million dollar company and are responsible for addressing discrepancies therein. There are always losses, but there are many patterns that you need to worry about that can lead to further loss; namely, an employee that steals usually commits many more subtle, less damaging acts of opportunism than the ultimate number of crimes. They often leave patterns that show the attitude, even on record. Out of numerous departments and hundreds of employees, you notice an associate is turning in figures very different than the others. Odd, upon further inspection, you see the itemized lists are also reflecting very different prices than it should, but only off the most by$10. You don’t see a real loss or gain. You find that the associate was using a keyboard that had a malfunctioning # 9 at the keypad and had been rounding figures. At first, it seems like an innocent, but lazy mistake, right? However, why not use the other 9 on the keyboard? Why wait weeks, never doing anything about it? What does that tell you about the employee- their attitude, their habits? You watch them more closely and find that they commit more opportunistic behaviors, and ultimately, they begin adjusting their own commission and that of other employees, as *favors*.  Cheating and stealing stem from an opportunistic attitude, but I say that many more other subtle behaviors occur far before leading up to the more prosecutable acts. It is an attitude.

That same reasoning can apply to cheating students, since cheating is an act of opportunism. Since not all students with that attitude get caught and I don’t see them having the opportunity to cheat at every chance- would they when they could? What sort of subtle behaviors to watch for? What kind of attitude is a red flag? Which students take offers for non-credit work? Which students will stay for a lab when told leaving won’t count against them and that participating will earn them no credit? Which students are concerned with only the grade, not finding out the answers to missed questions? Do they even understand that the graded work is ongoing communication, not competition with other students? Which ones would stay after class to find that out? Which ones are bothered by not knowing which ones they missed? Which students want to learn the subject enough that they end up outsourcing the provided material- no course program can ever cover the available knowledge or recent material for a subject, we all know that? Are they using the resources provided and attempting to find more out on their own? What kinds of students cheat the most? Those that are failing the course, or those that want an A? What motivates a person to remain in that kind of attitude for years? Do they not learn from their actions? Does the act of cheating lower self-esteem, does each act of cheating reinforce the attitude? Can students be rehabilitated from that type of thought process? Can children be given the tools, knowledge, and encouragement early on, so as to spare them from having an opportunistic attitude? Does it stem from experience with the education system in late childhood? Do cheaters need help? Are they as bad as thieves are? Do they deserve compassion and rehabilitation counseling the same that we give the worst criminal offenders in the penal system? Can we even generalize what type of person a cheater must be? Are there different categories of cheater, those we should be more compassionate towards or those we should more persecuting towards? Do some need help, but don’t know what to do? Do others just not care? Can we even begin to blame the government or educators for the kind of attitude a person holds?

Some food for thought after 400 mg of caffeine!

9. Fervent Freyja says:

Unfortunately, that is not the level of pressure some Japanese take in academics, especially in area like chemistry. It is really a form of harassment. Japanese workplace is known for being unnecessarily and impractically unreasonable with its style. The death and suicide rate due to overwork is terribly high compared to other countries.

This is very sad. Does this explain why it is such a clean country? I didn't get the impression that people were very unhappy when I visited many years ago. They were very friendly with me and seemed to have good, cooperative attitudes towards each other! It does make sense now that I look back. It makes me sad to think of such friendly people having to live that way. :frown:

10. HAYAO says:

This is very sad. Does this explain why it is such a clean country? I didn't get the impression that people were very unhappy when I visited many years ago. They were very friendly with me and seemed to have good, cooperative attitudes towards each other! It does make sense now that I look back. It makes me sad to think of such friendly people having to live that way. :frown:

Physics labs tend to be much more benign compared to chemistry labs. And like anywhere else, even in chemistry there are labs that are just simply good. So in these labs, I am sure what Dr. Courtney said applies. Ironically, labs that produce a lot of good results typically have very bad working conditions and selfish and irrational professors.  In Japan, we call these types of labs as "Black Laboratories". Students in these so-called "black labs" typically do experiments during "core-time" (time in which you must be in the lab) and is not allowed to do any work that is done on desk. So they do their desk works after that "core-time" has passed. This core-time is typically around 8 to 9 hours for normal labs, but black labs tend to be 12 hours or more. Considering that they can only work on desk after such 12 hours, they really end up going home much later than that. These people are deprived of sleep. I really feel bad for them.

I am in one of those labs that are in the grey zone. The core-time is 8 to 10 hours a day (depends on the day of the week) and 5 days a week. And professors don't force you to do nothing but experiments during that time. Nonetheless, I tend to stay around 12 to 14 hours a day and occasionally go on the weekends as well. My advisors are also quite tough in an irrational way. But it is not like I can produce more results than the people in the States do in their much shorter working hours. It is because we have too much office work and non-research related work than the research itself.  I really hope this changes. This is not what I went there for.

Foreigners tend to get treated better since most Japanese will give up on pushing on the same ideals on people with significant cultural differences. It's also many because Japanese typically admire Americans and Europeans. And like you would expect for any country, there are people who are genuinely good and people who are just good on the outside. These unreasonably tough people are those who are only good on the outside as far as my experience goes.

Okay I am finished with my lunch. I gotta go to work again.