Monday 18 February 2008

Academic misconduct and getting away with it

The American Chemical Society's C&EN is reporting on a truly spectacular piece of academic misconduct. They've actually got a blog for it, if you wish to comment. Go ahead and read it, I'll be here when you get back.

Pretty blatant, isn't it? If a book or an album were ripped off that way, it'd be pretty easy to spot. Unfortunately the sheer volume of scientific papers published, and the number of journals available, gives fraudulent research a lot of hiding places. For a dodgy paper to survive, it first has to dodge peer review, in which researchers in that field look it over and decide whether the research itself is legitimate and the paper is well put-together, and then escape detection by the journal readers themselves.

Peer review has plenty of problems. It often involves handing over your research to academic rivals, a topic which C&EN raised last week (they've moved this article to a blog as well). Scientific papers are often very specialised, so it must be tempting for a reviewer (who works in that field, but doesn't know the particular specialism very well) to let something through because it "looks good" even though a specialist would immediately see that it's a load of garbage. Likewise, if the reviewer doesn't work in that specialist area, they may not be familiar with the literature and therefore may not notice that a paper is a duplicate. The readership has the same difficulty in uncovering a problem. If a paper's not in their specialism, they may be reluctant to report that it looks like gibberish for fear that they may be wrong. And even a specialist can't be expected to read every paper in his or her field. There are simply too many journals, and dodgy papers tend to get published in the obscure ones, or at the very least, not the journal they're ripping off!

I had this problem when I was marking lab reports recently - the answers a few questions were copy-and-paste jobs from a report I had marked the week before, and only the odd wording and bass-ackwards chemistry in one particular sentence jogged my memory. In the end I had to come up with a ruse for recalling the last week's papers to check them out. A little more effort, and it would've escaped un-noticed, especially if I'd had more than a half-dozen or so papers to mark. (One of the things that really annoys me about plagiarism is that I get suspicious and find myself going back and forth between papers following up spurious similarities, which means it takes longer to grade.)

What can we do? Electronic plagiarism-detection is a start but is useless in the face of many forms of misconduct and may lead to dubious, lazy marking practices. There's a lot of money to be made by selling automagic fixes for complex problems, and software is only as good as its database. Stay vigilant, I suppose. Don't take a paper at face value just because it's outside of your research comfort zone. Scepticism is healthy in science, after all. I'm pretty new at this, but it seems to me that the skills necessary to spot academic misconduct (inquisitiveness about new fields, reading journal articles properly and not just going over the abstract with a highlighter) are the same skills needed to be a good scientist.

Further reading:
Pharyngula on a baffling failure of peer review.
Deja Vu, a duplicate-publication-finder with a very good database.
Wikipedia's article on scientific misconduct is a fun starting point for some lunchtime browsing.

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