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Misconduct in astronomy: What you said May 10, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
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ethicspollbars_0705

Check out the original poll here. But your votes won't be counted anymore. The numbers are percentages.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a poll asking readers “Which of the following constitutes “misconduct” in science?”, followed by a number of scenarios. I finally got round to putting the results into a pretty little graph to show the distribution of your picks. For the statistics aficionados, the numbers reflect the percentage of total votes that was given to that particular option; it isn’t possible to see who-clicked-what with the WordPress-offered polls.

In general the trend is as I’d expected with the most serious offenses being: (1) the stalling of a review to give your own publication a head start, (2) withholding conflicts of interest, (3) not listing a collaborator’s name as co-author even if they contributed, and (4) publishing data with a known error. My feeling is that there are few fields in astronomy competitive enough that you would see (1) happening; in subjects like condensed matter physics and nanotechnology I know researchers who’ve probably been a victim of this. It is of course tightly connected to the issue of conflict of interest in peer-review: if you’re an expert in the subject of the paper and you’re not a collaborator, then you’re quite likely to be in competition with the authors. Is that a conflict of interest? Of course it is. But which is worse: a reviewer who may be negatively biased against the authors, or a reviewer who’s not knowledgeable enough to give a decent review? An interesting question that I’m not sure I know the answer to.

I get the impression the peer-review philosophy in astronomy is more of the “publish and be damned” model – the community-policing approach to science.  And maybe rightly so. After all, with the Universe as our laboratory and vast amounts of data in the public domain, real data fraud (just making stuff up) is pretty hard.

¿Habla Ingles?

An interesting case is the “Copying an introductory paragraph verbatim from another paper without proper citation” option scenario: most scientists I’ve thrown this question at have responded quite strongly against it, many calling it plagiarism. Plagiarism is a Capital Sin in science, with even a whiff of an accusation carrying serious consequences for authors. But I think the term is much overused and should be reserved for the most serious offense, taking someone’s original ideas and passing them off as your own. But some, like engineer Bouville (2008) , argue that perhaps it’s a valid way for non-native English speakers to ensure their papers are readable:

These authors might in fact be praised, who are “disinclined to sacrifice quality and accuracy for want of linguistic expertise” (Vessal & Habibzadeh, 2007). Science would be more hurt by an incomprehensible article than by copied words: if the article is so unclear that the intellectual contribution is lost then arguing against this practice requires to hold words as more important than ideas – better lose ideas than copy words. No one would seriously thus argue. […]

One may argue that, in any case, the author should paraphrase the work of others rather than copy it verbatim. But this requires that words be unimportant: if words were really important then paraphrasing would be impossible (this is the case with literature – a poem cannot be paraphrased because a paraphrased poem would be a whole new poem, or perhaps no poem at all). Someone saying that authors must paraphrase thereby says that words are unimportant.[…]

If the writing is especially beautiful, witty, entertaining then by using someone else’s words I would steal some of the art or of the  of the original author. But in many disciplines, beauty, wit, and entertainment are rare and not valued (if not banned) so that this counter-argument is limited to elds that value writing and to authors who actually write well. […]

One can remark that this off ense can be committed only by non-native speakers (qua non-native speakers). Arguments against plagiarism are based on desert (the plagiarist does not deserve, the plagiarized would have deserved), but do native speakers deserve the advantage hereby enforced? Also, it is easy to set constraints that will not apply to oneself and to consider that problems other people may face cannot be serious. […]

I think he is a little too flippant about the matter: I do think there is a lot to say for authors writing their own background sections, as it’s important to for the reader to be able to follow their train of thought. But I’m not sure I would call it plagiarism when a scientist copies a couple of sentences with no original ideas in them – just lazy and bad practice. In the same article Bouville argues for a more sensible education about plagiarism at (under)graduate level and this I agree with. Plagiarism is usually the one aspect of ethics in science that is ardently taught at this level, particularly with the internet (aka. the Plagiarist’s Playground) at the disposal of over-burdened students. But little attention is given to the question of why it is wrong in the first place. We end up with students, and academics, littering their text with citations to avoid accusations of plagiarism. That’s hardly the point either.

Why bother selling your grandmother

…. if you can steal someone else’s night on the telescope? Do observational data get stolen? I have no idea actually. But if you know how to, I imagine it’s easy to get away with. When an astronomer or team of astronomers gets time on a telescope, they usually get exclusive access to the data for a certain period of time, usually a year (these policies do vary by observatory). After that the data become publicly available, so anyone can use them and publish papers based on them. The proporietary period basically gives the astronomers who proposed and prepared the observations in the first place a head start; it doesn’t give them “first publication rights”. So as long as the data thief publishes outside the proprietary period it would be hard to prove that he had got the data illegally while they were protected.

Is it that simple? Do observatories have theft-protection measures in place? I’m not sure. It’s clear that data ownership and access will become an increasingly important issue as we enter an age where large surveys will transform astronomy research into highly sophisticated data mining.

I think it’s fair to say that there should be more awareness of ethics issues in astronomy research. While it’s not as weighty an issue as in the biomedical sciences, young researchers in particular should be taught the value of responsible research practices and what to do if they witness serious cases of misconduct (frankly, I’m not sure that I do). The need for better education in ethics was highlighted by Kalas in a recent paper submitted to the 2010 Decadal Survey (2009).

I haven’t even touched on the issue of how misconduct should be sanctioned, and why, and by whom? You could argue that governments should take away funding from fraudulent scientists and bar them from applying for funding for a while. Or should that burden be on the universities? Whatever the sanctioning method, it’s important to make a clear distinction between fraud and human error: we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re afraid to publish results for fear of punishment in case our results turn out wrong.

I guess I should include some references, no?

Bouville, Plagiarism: Words and Ideas, Sci. Eng. Ethics, vol. 14(3), pp. 311-322 (2008) (arxiv here) – many references.

Vessal & Habibzadeh, Rules of the game of scientific writing: Fair play and plagiarism, Lancet 369, p. 641(2007)  (here, registration required, and follow the suggested links in the sidebar for much more discussion in the Lancet)

Goodstein, Scientific Misconduct, Academe, vol. 88(1) (2002) (online here) – this one’s excellent with lots of interesting references.

Kalas, Ethical standards in astronomy, Position paper on the State of the Profession, submitted to the 2010 Decadal Survey in Astronomy & Astrophysics (2009)

And if you made it this far you may want to read these too

Bouville, Crime and punishment in scientific research, arXiv:0803.4058v3 (2008) – plus plenty of references to keep you occupied for a while

Scientific misconduct blog – mostly biomedical stuff, lots of links to other sites

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