Monday, 8 September 2008

Mmm... Fudge...

Read: CAUT Bulletin article Survey Exposes Surprisingly High Rates of Research Fraud among US Scientists.

I'm not sure why the article title should include the word "surprisingly" other than publishing an article entitled, "Ho-hum, More Research Fraud" wouldn't really sell many copies.

Now, I'm not one to blindly paint the whole scientific with the same brush, and put them all down as lying con artists only in it for a buck. Science and mathematics and technology and empiricism and reason and all that are wonderful glorious things that have discovered and built the unimaginable otherwise. And I respect the scientific community in ways that are really difficult to feel about almost the entire rest of the planet if for nothing else but for pushing towards understanding of the world around us for no other reason that the understanding itself. But scientists are human beings, just like the rest of us. And therefore it's not surprising at all that many if not all will slip, at least a little.

And how difficult is it really to slip in research reporting? Take mere reporting of numbers. Just recently I was discussing some tiny little issue about how we record enrollment numbers in the information literacy sessions we provide at my library... I'm not saying anyone is fudging numbers or even that my questioning of past practice even makes sense in the end, but the simple fact that such things can be questioned (and don't get me wrong, they should be questioned) suggests that others' understanding of how much more complex issues can be less than straightforward in even just the counting. Add in the pressure of getting published, applying for grants, respect by your peers and even your own personal desire to accomplish something and it's surprising that any numbers we deal with are accurate.

Then look at it from the position of those in charge of reporting such incidents: university administration, department heads, project supervisors... all either have been and are in the exactly the same position as those being "reported" on or have a vested interest in the success of the same. And we're all incredibly busy so often it's probably just a case of waving it through because no one has the time or energy to really be sure.

This is not to remove or even reduce any blame here. Fraud is fraud and it's particularly shameful in science since ideal behaviour and expectations are so high, not to mention that lives could very well be on the line (think medical science or engineering). Rather some perspective and pause before damning all scientists as tricksters wiling away public dollars on nothing but lies.

Honestly, I blame all of us. Scientists and non. In the lives we lead generally. Too often, we let things slide and "fudge the numbers" in our daily existence. "It's ok if I speed right now because I'm a pretty good driver." "It's ok if I don't tell the grocery store clerk that she gave me too much change because I've probably been shorted before." Little white lies we tell ourselves to justify the occasional breach of ethics. We know better but we don't DO better. But if we don't do better when it doesn't really matter one way or the other, we lose the opportunities to practice for those times when it does matter. So be honest with yourself. Don't cheat. Think about what you're doing, even if just a little bit more than you normally would. Maybe, if enough of us are a little better in the little things we do, perhaps we can take some pressure off the people who do slightly bigger things. LOL Maybe.

Full disclosure: I totally speed. But I'm a pretty good driver. Honest!

No comments: