Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who Should Investigate Research Misconduct?

Two recent items do not directly involve IRBs, but they raise broader issues of accountability for research misconduct.

[Erin O'Connor and Maurice Black, "Save Academic Freedom," Inside Higher Ed, 28 February 2011; Alice Dreger, "Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association: A Cautionary Tale," Human Nature (published online 16 February 2011).]

Erin O'Connor and Maurice Black, research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, argue that "disciplinary societies should define and enforce ethical standards."

They assert, with some plausibility but without much evidence, that scholars are doing a poor job policing each other's misconduct. [For example, they note that "Forty percent of professors say their work has been plagiarized." But that doesn't mean that forty percent of professors say their work has been plagiarized by other scholars.]

O'Connor and Black mostly want the American Association of University Professors to pursue misconduct by scholars as vigorously as it pursues misconduct by administrators. In addition, they suggest that

Every disciplinary society should have [a code of ethics]. Societies should emphasize education and enforcement, coordinate with institutions to set standards and evaluate wrongdoing, and publicly censure institutions and individuals when appropriate. And societies should recognize that failure to frame ethical standards and to engage meaningfully with institutional efforts to ensure professional integrity (whether as an independent watchdog, adviser, or partner) damages not only the society in question — but the discipline itself. (We have only to recall the instructive case of former Emory history professor Michael Bellesiles to see the truth of this. While Emory investigated credible charges that Bellesiles had falsified the research in his award-winning Arming America, the American Historical Association discredited itself in classic tu quoque form, accusing Bellesiles' accusers of harassment.)

This is a misleading account of the AHA's actions in the Bellesiles case. The AHA's 2001 resolution stated that

Although it is appropriate to subject all scholarly work to criticism and to evaluate that work's arguments and its sources, the Council of the American Historical Association considers personal attacks upon or harassment of an author, as we have seen directed at Michael A. Bellesiles following publication of Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, to be inappropriate and damaging to a tradition of free exchange of ideas and the advancement of our knowledge of the past.

The Association welcomed the sort of criticism that eventually discredited the book. It offered no tu quoque defenses, which would have required accusing Bellesiles' accusers of research misconduct. And it played a constructive role in the Emory investigation (see below).

That is not to say that all scholarly associations behave well. For a vivid example, read Alice Dreger's new article, "Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association.

Dreger digs into the AAA's botched response to Patrick Tierney's 2001 book, Darkness in El Dorado, an apparently fraudulent, libelous attack on the work of Napoleon Chagnon and late James V. Neel. Asking why an AAA task force continued an inquiry based on a book the task force chair privately termed a "piece of sleaze," Dreger concludes that the anthropologists involved were too eager to show themselves to be on the side of indigenous peoples, even at the expense of the truth.

"Advocacy is not scholarship," she writes. "The former is specifically concerned with advancing human rights, the latter with the production of knowledge. To insist that scholars of a particular discipline adhere to and even advance preordained social politics looks to me frighteningly like the situation Galileo found himself in."

And she concludes,

I understand that those who were involved in this controversy may have had good intentions. Many sought justice. But justice that is meted out according to politics and not according to facts is the justice of the Middle Ages. If justice is not based on the facts, if principles of justice are not applied universally, there is no real justice. Forms of "scholarship" that deny evidence, that deny truth, that deny the importance of facts—even if performed in the name of good—are dangerous not only to science and to ethics, but to democracy. And so they are dangerous ultimately to humankind.

While Dreger has less faith in scholarly societies (or at least the AAA) than do O'Connor and Black, they might all agree on the value of university-sponsored investigations informed by standards set by scholarly associations. O'Connor and Black do call for associations to "coordinate with institutions to set standards and evaluate wrongdoing," and Dreger applauds what she calls "the University of Colorado's top-notch work on Ward Churchill" as well as the University of Michigan's investigation of Neel's work in South America.

I remain troubled by Colorado's condemnation of Churchill for failing to meet the AHA's Standards of Professional Conduct. Those standards are explicitly designed for "professional historians," and that doesn't include Ward Churchill.

Emory's investigation of Bellesiles may be a better model. While the AHA was not directly involved, the Emory investigative committee specifically noted its dependence on the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, since Emory's statement of Policies and Procedures "seems basically designed for the investigation of alleged misconduct in the life and physical sciences." [Sound familiar?]

In sum, when a university-affiliated scholar is accused of serious misconduct, the best outcome may well be a university-led investigation that uses standards set by a scholarly association, rather than by the university itself. Making such an outcome routine will require abandoning efforts at universal, one-size-fits-all ethics.


Alice Dreger said...

Thanks, Zack, for this comparison and analysis. I think the thing worth remembering about Ward Churchill is that the investigation showed that what he did would offend any scholar who cares about truth, regardless of discipline or professional society affiliation. The report is really worth reading. The group that produced it did a terrific job sorting out politics from facts. Any scholar charged with misconduct who is innocent would welcome a group like that one. Thanks again. - Alice Dreger

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thanks for this comment.

What frustrates me about the Churchill committee report is its failure to distinguish among various ways of looking at the past. On page 64, it condemns Churchill for basing some of his claims on Evan S. Connell's book, Son of the Morning Star:

"Professor Churchill’s decision to rely upon Connell’s book is puzzling. Connell is an acclaimed and highly respected author of novels, short stories, and essays. Son of the Morning Star, his dramatic and well-received book about Custer (later filmed for television), was written for the general public. Connell provides no notes to the sources of his information, and it is possible that parts of the book are slightly fictionalized. Thus it is not a scholarly source for the events Professor Churchill is describing."

This passage acknowledges that a "slightly fictionalized," unsourced book about the past can be well received and earn its author acclaim and respect. Why, then, hold Churchill to the standards of professional historians? Why not consider him a historical novelist?

This is not to say that Churchill's conduct was tolerable; I imagine he violated some of the standards of historical novelists as well. But I wish the investigative committee had spent more time pondering the implications of its own statement that "at the time he was hired, the University was aware of the type of writing and speaking he does." (8) In other words, the university hired Churchill to make provocative claims based on doubtful evidence. It awarded him tenure for making provocative claims based on doubtful evidence. It promoted him to full professor for making provocative claims based on doubtful evidence. And then it fired him for making provocative claims based on doubtful evidence.

If the University of Colorado had wanted a scholar who cared about the truth--the way you and I care about the truth--it would not have hired Ward Churchill to teach. Having done so, I think it should have done more to judge him on his own terms.

Anonymous said...

So, how does one go about filing a complaint when an organization does not follow IRB protocol? For instance, IRB approval was not sought at all and no informed consent was signed for a psychological survey given to children unbeknownst to their parents.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

If the project was conducted by university researchers, the university research office would be the best place to complain. Otherwise, one could try the sponsoring foundation or agency (if any) or the federal Office for Human Research Protections. As I will note shortly, the last investigates few complaints.