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Unethical requests

  1. Jun 5, 2008 #1

    Ex1

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    I've been asked (told/commanded) by my research supervisor to write a recommendation for something that I couldn't honestly recommend under any circumstances.

    In fact, I'd go so far as to actively discourage people from it if I could.

    Normally I'd say "caveat emptor" but I'm not convinced it is ethical to do so in this case.

    If I don't write the recommendation I have reason to believe that my unrelated thesis (due in eight weeks) might suddenly become significantly harder to get accepted, if you get my drift.

    Any advice? Can anyone think of a graceful way to get out of it?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 5, 2008 #2

    berkeman

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    Can you be a bit more specific about the "thing"? If it is dangerous or something, you can use the legal liability angle in reasoning with your supervisor. Just point out the potential liability to the department if the department endorses whatever it is.

    Alternately, go to your supervisor's supervisor to ask for advice on how to handle the situation.
     
  4. Jun 5, 2008 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    I agree with berkeman- it would help if you tell us what this "something" is.

    In any case, you can- and should- take your concerns to the Department Chair directly. If the Department Chair is your research supervisor, then you should go directly to the Dean's office. Seriously. Ethical conduct in research is that important.
     
  5. Jun 5, 2008 #4
    If it's not dangerous and just a case of a difference of opinion over whether to recommend something, STFU and write the thing for your supervisor already. It's his decision and responsibility, not yours, right? Don't confuse a writing assignment with being in charge of deciding what to recommend.
     
  6. Jun 5, 2008 #5

    Choppy

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    If you've been asked to do something unethical, most universities have formal avenues for addressing such situations. If you need to, contact your campus ombudsman or office of human rights. Your department should also have a formal process for dealing with student/supervisor issues - talk to your graduate advisor to find out how this works.

    Before going down any formal path though - have you addressed the issue with your supervisor directly? Does he/she know how you feel about this? One approach might be to write a formal letter to your supervisor (not just an email) explaining your position on the issue. That way you both have a clear record of where you stand.
     
  7. Jun 6, 2008 #6

    Ex1

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    Thanks for the replies everybody, interesting thoughts. I'd like to enlighten you all as to what it is about, but I'd rather keep it semi-anonymous, at least until it's all sorted, so that it doesn't come back to bite me.

    Having slept on it, I have decided I can take the same approach as an employer who is required to write a reference for a bad employee (in the UK it's generally unacceptable -and possibly illegal - to write a 'bad' reference). Consequently, I will write the recommendation but not actually recommend (or not recommend) the action in question. I will simply say that the process/study was carried out, between what dates it took place and why we decided to carry it out in the first place. Much like the employer would say "[person] worked for [company] between [date 1] and [date 2]" and not say how bad the employee was.

    In case that is deemed unacceptable, I've arranged a conflict of interest that will prevent me from actually endorsing the programme.

    Hope this is useful info for anyone else in a similar situation.
     
  8. Jun 6, 2008 #7

    cristo

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    I don't think that this can be answered without knowing what it is. However, if the request is "unethical" as you state in the thread title, then no, you shouldn't have to do it. I guess it depends upon your relationship with your supervisor as to how you would deal with this: do you get on well enough to just tell him your concerns? If not, then as suggested above, go to the head of your group, or department, or maybe talk to your second supervisor (if you have such a thing at your university?)
     
  9. Jun 11, 2008 #8

    Ex1

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    To close the loop on this one, I wrote recommendation in congenial tones but didn't specifically recommend it. Unfortunately, perhaps it didn't go down too well as I've just been shouted and ranted at by my supervisor for 45 minutes non-stop about how stupid and useless I am. "As much use as a letter to Father Christmas" is the quote that sticks in my mind.

    Apparently, the last 6 months of my life have been a waste of time and the components I need to complete my project will now not be ordered.

    Given that I've had no other interaction with him apart from writing the note since last week - when I was "an excellent student with no problems" (his words) - I think perhaps it didn't go down too well. :(
     
  10. Jun 11, 2008 #9

    lisab

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    Sorry to hear that, Ex1 :frown: . Maybe now you should go back and write the review exactly as you would like it to be.
     
  11. Jun 11, 2008 #10

    cristo

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    Maybe you should now go and see someone else in your department and find out what is really going on.
     
  12. Jun 11, 2008 #11

    Ex1

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    Thanks both.

    Yeah, perhaps. I'm in two minds whether I should go to see anyone else about it, he's pretty senior in the department and I don't want to make him angrier than he already is. Hopefully something will work itself out.
     
  13. Jun 11, 2008 #12

    berkeman

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    Sounds like this person is a bit bipolar. Not a good situation. You have grounds for at least some initial action, I would think. Doesn't matter how senior the fellow is, he sounds dangerous.
     
  14. Jun 11, 2008 #13

    dx

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    Can you tell us what the unethical request was now? I'm curious.
     
  15. Jun 11, 2008 #14
    Did you tell your supervisor that writing a recommendation for whatever it was is unethical in your opinion?
     
  16. Jun 11, 2008 #15

    rbj

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    Ex, it would be nice if justice prevailed all of the time. Many persons, sometimes those with religious faith and sometimes it those who just believe in something like karma, believe that justice will ultimately prevail (the Magna Charta in the U.K., desegregation and civil rights in the U.S. South, hell it looks like the U.S. may very well have their first black president with a middle name "Hussein" and last name that sounds sorta like "Osama" and had a muslim father, I would have never expected this 4 years ago).

    Anyway, there is a period of time when the injustice appears to be prevailing, but assuming your ethical position was based upon truth (facts that can be verified by other, third parties) and on the common good, this "truth" has a way of resisting being bottled up and finds its way out of attempts to contain it. Perhaps someday you will be vindicated and your supervisor will be embarrassed.

    It looks like (lacking knowledge of the specifics) you did the right thing in writing the report dispassionately and neutrally. Unless you're a lawyer defending a client that you know is guilty as hell, no one can expect you to make a case for something you just don't believe in. Let them make that case. If they want you to do the dirty work for them, perhaps it is to set you up to cover their ass, and if that's the case, they have knowledge of their own culpability.

    But if you do the right thing (sometimes in "speaking truth to power") don't expect vindication right away. The sword that people in power carry is real, not trivial, and to be reckoned with. You might just be feeling its sting. This is when personal integrity and courage become salient attributes. You have my admiration and best wishes (unless, of course, when the facts are known I think your super is right and you are wrong, but I sorta doubt it if he wanted you to plug the case he advocates without respect to your position on it). Good luck.

    Edit: Sounds like you are a student in university-level academics. One last suggestion -> consider going over this guy's head. Is he a prof? Go to the department chair. Is he the department chair? Then go to the Dean. Tell this guy's boss what his previous evaluation of you was ("an excellent student with no problems"), what he expected you to do, what you did, how he reacted, and the consequences you have experienced. Let that guy's boss evaluate the justice or injustice of it. Be prepared for a decision that is not entirely to your liking, but if your case is "true" (verifiable) and congruent to the common-good, and you know how to express that case persuasively enough that a 3rd party can understand it (from your POV), you might be pleasantly surprized. But just becoming a student who works for a particular prof does not mean that you give up your freedom of conscience and you have to become his mouthpeice (which might mean that you have to take the flak for what happens when you advocate his case). That's very unfair.
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2008
  17. Jun 11, 2008 #16
    If he is senior, you need to find the people who are not allied with him and will listen to you from a neutral viewpoint.

    As a senior, he undoubtedly has ruffled some feathers in his time. Find out who.
     
  18. Jun 12, 2008 #17

    Andy Resnick

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    I am genuinely disturbed by this. Even though I only have one side of the story here (yours), for an academic supervisor to hold your graduation hostage is really unethical. It undermines a large part of professional training. I also detect a whiff of financial conflicts of interest ("I will simply say that the process/study was carried out..." A study *for whom*?) which only adds to my concern.

    Again, I urge you to bring your story (presented in crisp dry facts) to the attention of the Department Chair or the functional equivalent. Here in the US there are also grievance committees that students have access to.
     
  19. Jun 12, 2008 #18
    Does he hate popcorn? You could always use the giant space laser he made you build to cook a giant vat of popcorn inside his house.
     
  20. Jun 12, 2008 #19

    berkeman

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    << begin hijack >>

    :rofl: That is a great movie! http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Hills/7350/

    << end hijack >>
     
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