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Institutionalized Plagiarism

During the Dark Ages a guild of professional assassins, rogues, and thieves willfully misled inquiries as to the guilt of fellow associates in order to exonerate them of their crimes. Although this behavior probably originated with the dawn of humanity, the thieves' guild was first to codify the dastardly practice. Centuries later, gangsters and professional mobsters, typified by Lucky Luciano and John Dillinger, exploited the tenets of the thieves' code of silence so successfully that it permea

By | August 2, 2004

During the Dark Ages a guild of professional assassins, rogues, and thieves willfully misled inquiries as to the guilt of fellow associates in order to exonerate them of their crimes. Although this behavior probably originated with the dawn of humanity, the thieves' guild was first to codify the dastardly practice. Centuries later, gangsters and professional mobsters, typified by Lucky Luciano and John Dillinger, exploited the tenets of the thieves' code of silence so successfully that it permeated virtually every realm of American society.

The last place that one would expect to encounter this sinister form of corruption would be in institutions of higher learning, deceit being the very antithesis of intellectualism. However, not only is a code of silence rife at many US universities, it remains the single largest impediment to expunging misconduct from scientific inquiry.

While most scientists agree on what constitutes scientific chicanery and malfeasance1 and an Office of Research Integrity (ORI, http://www.ori.dhhs.gov) has existed since 1992, plagiarism remains a serious threat to scientific integrity, with no tangible remedies on offer.23 Despite this, US institutions are permitted to conduct inquiries under a veil of secrecy (cleverly disguised as privacy), and leniency in interpretation of the guidelines ensures that inquiries can be handled without compulsory disclosure to ORI.4 University compliance documents are replete with inconsistencies, misinformation, and a tendency to obscure the true scope of the misconduct problem, making independent assessments difficult.

Allegations of misconduct are on the rise according to ORI records (see Fig. A). PubMed keyword searching on 'scientific misconduct' returns an average of 163 citations per year since 1992 (when ORI was set up) and 64 per year in the decade prior to 1992 (Fig. A). Before 1992, an average of seven articles on scientific plagiarism were published annually, rising to 24 articles per annum since 1992 (Fig. B). In fact, the number of articles in both categories started to rise in 1990–1991, so the increase is not directly attributable to the setting up of ORI.

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Scientific misconduct (A) and plagiarism citations (B) retrieved from the National Library of Medicine's database using PubMed for the years 1984–2003.

Further compounding the problem is the ineffectiveness of guidelines in clear-cut instances of misconduct. Universities can apparently comply with ORI guidelines yet fail to reprimand professors who steal ideas from junior researchers without apportioning credit. This is effectively the sanctioning of plagiarism, and measures to prevent it will be ineffective for as long as the authority to enforce them is vested in the offending institution. Protection for junior researchers is woefully inadequate, despite much-needed reform being tabled.5 Unfavorable outcomes coupled with a fear of retaliation dissuades most junior whistle-blowers from ever making allegations, and legal options are limited for resource-restricted students contemplating litigation against attorney-laden universities.4

Furthermore, state legislatures are unwilling to enact laws to punish investigators running multimillion dollar laboratories for fear their federal funding will leave state coffers. Many who do trust the Integrity Officer to conduct an impartial investigation learn that this is tantamount to having the cat look after the canary. Malfeasance is a virtual certainty when administrators are left to investigate misconduct cases brought by students against tenured, well-funded faculty.

We cringe when internal affairs exonerates a bad cop, and it should be no different when issues of academic integrity are at stake. Scientists must act to uproot this menace. We must: 1) Assess the extent of all forms of scientific misconduct, and increase awareness by conducting a widespread survey; 2) Open up proceedings to public scrutiny to remove the shroud of secrecy fostered by institutions seeking to stifle justice in favor of self-maintenance; 3) Transfer policing duties to an independent committee of nonpartisan reviewers.

The old adage, "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," may be sound advice when it comes to matters of domestic repair, but when it comes to misconduct investigations, research universities have extrapolated the adage to, "If it's broken, don't fix it, just cover it up."

The old thieves' guild would be proud.

Shawn G. Clouthier clouthie@umich.edu is a research associate II and laboratory manager for the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center in Ann Arbor.

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