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Ethics in Research: Is the Government Catching Professors Cheating?

By Jacquelyn Stephens
6 Mar 2015

At the 2015 Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE) conference a few weeks ago, I went to a breakout session on ethical research that is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The presenter leads a division of the NSF called Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM (CCE STEM), which essentially oversees the ethical provisions of NSF grants given to universities.  The presenter’s main point was that perhaps too much slack is given to faculty members who head up large-scale research projects, at least when it comes to ethics.

The NSF seems to have a clear commitment to ethical standards. Pertaining to ethics training, the grant application states: “The institution must have a training plan available upon request for students and post-docs, and all new applications to NSF must include a mentoring plan if any post-docs will be employed.” Missing from the requirements is any type of ethics training mandate for faculty members, not to mention the vague language around the training plan, which are allegedly lacking at many schools. Faculty are presumably exempt because they are already well-versed in ethical research and conduct.

Yet, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found an increase in the instances of ethical red flags in their grantee’s research projects. The number of cases of plagiarism, peer review confidentiality breaches, misrepresenting of funding sources, etc. is on the rise. The OIG even speculates that 1,300 of 45,000 NSF proposals could contain plagiarized content. These instances of “cheating” are not being done by the undergraduates or post-docs, but by the faculty members in charge of the project. This begs the question of whether faculty really should be exempt from ethics training, that which their subordinates are required to complete.

Students are graded based on their papers and tests. Developing research projects and publishing based on the results is the equivalent for faculty members. The academic community abhors cheating from students; in fact, plagiarism can often result in suspension or expulsion. Shouldn’t faculty members be held to the same ethical standard?

Jacquelyn worked as a Graduate Fellow at the Prindle Institute for Ethics from 2014-2016 after graduating from DePauw University. She is now in graduate school at Northwestern University.
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