The University Record, April 1, 1997

Academic values and academic misconduct

By John T. Lehman
Department of Biology and
Center for Great Lakes and Aquatic Sciences

Revelations about data fabrication and misrepresentation of results in the laboratory of U-M geneticist Francis Collins (Ann Arbor News, 31 October 1996) are a dark reminder of the behaviors that we encounter as faculty which distort and sometimes rupture bounds of ethics in academia. The case is thought-provoking on many levels, particularly for faculty who have seen examples of academic mischief by students or colleagues, or who have thwarted a few and been unsuccessful in thwarting others. It seems fair to say that the number of instances is greater than the 200 allegations sent to the Office of Research Integrity each year.

Let's examine the essence of the problem that faces us. Dr. Mike Ianuzzi is quoted in the Ann Arbor News article as saying "Fraud is there because of competition--- for publication, for research dollars, for advancement in academics, for recognition." This might be called a working hypothesis. In the science of ecological interactions that is one of my interests, the word "competition" is commonly applied to the acquisition or defense of limiting resources. Limiting resources are things that are vital for survival and reproduction. It is common to characterize the consumption or use of the resource as "exploitation," and to call denial of access by others to existing resource as "interference." It seems to me that what we define as academic misconduct arises from the latter behavior, which also is indigenous to many lower forms of life. And the observable truth about low life forms of behavior is that they are successful and have adaptive value in many environments. Hold this thought, because it may help explain some of the motivation for problems that face us in the current university environment.

The word "competition" has become a fixture in the lexicon of institutions. "Competition," as bandied about by many university executive officers, and CEOs in general, is implied to be a good thing. It is easy to learn that competition is considered good whenever the home university gets more money, or keeps more money, than alternative recipients. Suffice it to say, the word "competition" gets used often by university administrators, usually in exhortation.

By its scientific use, "competition" implies existence of winners and losers. How tragic that in a profession that prizes knowledge for all as proof that everyone wins, we discover in fact that exhortation for competitiveness intrudes so forcefully that it can cloud judgments about honesty and fair play. One main attraction of the university has been the perception that everyone benefits from the growth of knowledge, so the win or lose mentality of the corporate world could be rejected as not being strictly applicable here. Knowledge and ideas formerly had value independent of money because they promoted human culture, introspection and philosophical thought about the relationship of humans to nature.

Sigma Xi, in its publication A New Agenda for Science, has reported the observation that "most significant scientific advances really start with genius, pencil and paper, and time to understand the problem." When then-interim President Neal addressed the faculty in September and extolled the research prowess of the U-M, however, the metric was dollars, not genius. Genius in its pure state, it seems clear, cannot pay the bills generated by the non-teaching arms of the university. The environment promotes mutualism between money-starved budget builders and risk-taking entrepreneurial grantees. We recognize that risk-taking could be in the form of ventures into unexplored intellectual territory, with uninsured outcomes. Skill then lies in judging the odds of success and inventing honest ways to improve them. But risk-taking can also present a sinister face if risk-takers skirt borders of ethics and propriety, pursuing success by alternative criteria. This dichotomy stems from the fact that the two types of risk-takers may have very different goals and motivations in mind, with one goal encouraged entirely by conspicuous rewards for sating the budgetary appetites of their patrons. Temptations for the latter abuses seem obvious, and disincentives are not so apparent.

In the face of growing alarm, we see the rise of regulations and administrative structures to "manage" the abuses. But as one of my late colleagues liked to observe, ethical people don't need additional codes, and unethical people could care less. Maybe there is a temptation to blame the problems on the environment, or the culture (sometimes called "the corporate mentality"), but people remain responsible for their own actions. If there are indeed more ethical transgressions today than in the past, and everyone I talk to seems to think there are, then it must be because we are transforming our community and its value systems. Maybe the notion of competition was always a fact of life inside the university, but oftentimes the currency of exchange was ideas, and the resource of ideas is inexhaustible. The strict scientific concept of competition cannot apply when resources cannot be depleted or be made unavailable, even if the same word is used to label the interactions. Competition of ideas created a unique milieu that is now under assault. The assaults are potentially greatest in the sciences, where administrative structures tend to reward the production of money rather than the production of original ideas. After all, we have provisions for research incentives that return dollars to investigators in proportion to grant moneys garnered, but there is no obvious parallel set of incentives for ideas or original thoughts.

In my view, the villainy that we confront is not best described by the word "competition." The operative term is "covetousness," by analogy with a vice that is warned against by Judeo-Christian Commandment. It seems to me that the mainstays of the academic institution are under attack because some professors no longer have as their goal contemplative freedom, and the freedom of expression and action that are possessed within it. Instead, production of ideas for intellectual enrichment has been displaced from its place of prime value by the desire for administrative advancement and money to balance the books. Junior faculty always believe the standards for survival are greater now than in the past; some challenged graduate students increasingly seem to believe that academic careers are almost unattainable without gimmicks or angles or even outright chicanery. Both groups increasingly accept their lots as employees of the swelling wave of professional administrators who vie to manage the university enterprise. And many speak of science as a "zero-sum game" where resources are wrestled away, by fair means or foul, to assure personal survival. Surely we have all heard time and again that "getting a grant" made the difference between retention and dismissal for someone.

The temptation for shaving corners or premeditated misconduct has long been recognized among students and junior faculty, where the instincts for survival from one year to the next can occasionally lead to ethical compromises. Bertolt Brecht's Mac expressed these instincts as a near universal truth in Die Dreigroschenoper: "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral." Thus, at a business-modeled university it is a good idea to ask who or what is doing the feeding, on what they feed, and what morality might apply.

The latest hint of warning is the descriptor "research-active" applied to individual faculty. Like many statements, the phrase doesn't necessarily mean what it seems to say. The moniker is widely understood to mean "indirect-cost generating," with reference to the funds that flow to central administration, and then in progressively lesser measure to deans, to department chairs, and in a final trickle to the project directors who conceptualized and solicited the grant and contract funds. At first, faculty research incentive funds were effectively small cash carrots for proposal creation. But now, carrots are perceived to be insufficient spurs for grant productivity as funds have grown tight, and a stick has been brandished. In our Department of Biology, for example, faculty were informed that only "research-active" employees can be assured of retaining their existing space into the future, and that failure to be "research-active" for a period of three years will be an invitation for the boot from the premises. It seems that unless creative faculty generate overhead to fund the needy administration of the university, the faculty may lose the working environment used to create new knowledge and to communicate it to others (the traditional, academic meaning of "research-active"). Such a formulation must ultimately be destructive of the institution's creative strengths.

The mental image of this emerging policy is one in which the landlords of the campus pluck foundation stones from our institutional terrain in order to embellish their above-ground territories. Research and scholarship blended with new ideas create knowledge, but cannot be guaranteed to make a profit. Faculty scholarship, in particular, cannot predictably ring up profits for chairs, deans and other campus officers during their several-year administrative lifetimes. Societal benefits of traditional faculty enterprise accumulate only in terms of intellectual and cognitive growth, long-term creativity, synthetic thinking and stimuli for the next generation of thinkers. Where's the money in that? The subliminal message is "Deliver those bucks right now if you want to stay here, and don't necessarily tell us why or how you did it."

This attitude is a prescription for abuse, and an injunction against long-range thinking. Cover-up of integrity lapses will surely be a growth industry. Faculty who build research collections of artifacts, samples or data must beware. Unless research collections, even those obtained at taxpayer expense, can be converted to revenue generating purposes, they could be accorded little protection or sense of value. And the quality of instruction at every level will inevitably decline as the intellectual foundation for knowledge and synthesis is eroded and talent is diverted. But these consequences perhaps deserve expansion in another essay.

The prevailing environment sets a daunting task to those who insist to students that shortcuts and lapses of academic integrity are unacceptable. It poses a threat to the common welfare because of damage to institutional trust and because of the potential for all members of the community to be painted with the same brush when abuses eventually come to light. Yet it is a natural and predictable consequence of a university value system that forsakes its traditional notions of integrity in exchange for cold hard cash. How likely is it that anytime soon we will find department chairs or deans anxious for advancement who exhort their faculty to spend more time thinking and professing their thoughts, and less time chasing grants? Instances of academic misconduct reflect a tragically distorted set of values, and point to the need for concerted effort to reassert the primacy of and respect for ideas as the commodity of the academic institution.