Academic Black Death

In relation to the Retraction Watch website, to which both Neil Remington Abramson and I subscribe, Neil commented as follows:

It’s depressing to see so much cheating. Academic research has always assumed honesty on the part of the researchers reporting their findings. Referees have no ability or time to patrol the data sets looking for invalid data or crooked analysis. You get the correlation table and the statistical technique print-off. If the correlation table is faked, you need the data to run it again yourself. If the stats are finagled, same.

It’s never occurred to me to do this, or rather, if it did occasionally float into my mind during a particularly frustrating analysis, I didn’t because it was unethical and I assumed we were all working from the same rule book. It’s Kant stuff; categorical imperative. Don’t do anything that, if everyone did it, would cause a lot of harm, or irreparable harm. If everyone cheated in reporting their analysis, then no scientific publications could be trusted. And we have come to the place where there is doubt, very wide and even in relation to “top” journals.

In the past, we assumed that quantitative statistical analyses had the greatest reliability and validity; least open to researcher bias. Now it seems hermeneutic analysis would be better, simply because it’s not based on quantitative methods that can so easily be corrupted if the researchers are dishonest. And it’s so hard to detect dishonesty that way. Academic referees operate on an assumption of honesty in relation to the data.

Its pure “categorical imperative” stuff. Once a few are proven cheaters in top journals then it affects my level of trust for all the others.

I read an article last year about a research team that did replication studies on a hundred psych articles from top journals. The majority couldn’t be replicated especially at anywhere near the levels of significant originally reported, if at all.

I mentioned that Kant said you shouldn’t do anything that, if everyone did it, it would cause irreparable harm. I guess my point is that everyone doesn’t have to do it to cause that irreparable harm. One person gets caught and you say, “oh, it’s one bad apple.” When 2/3 of 100 get caught, that’s different. Who can you trust? Well, you don’t know. We understood the most reliable were top journals but these 2/3 were in top journals, with more every day being reported on this retraction blog.

It’s s bit like the Black Death. People are dying – at least in relation to their papers and their reputations – but you don’t know the cause. So you burn the infected bodies (the retracted papers), and maybe the ones you suspect of being carriers, and pray to God the plague will go away.

Kant said that the guy who lies and cheats to take advantage of the rest of us who are trying to be honest and do no harm, is EVIL. That’s the word he uses. I agree. These cheaters are evil. They should be fired and marked with the sign of Cain so they never work in a university or research lab again, or ever be allowed to publish anything except eventually their obituary. If people see there are real and long term consequences, maybe it’ll incentivize.

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About brucelarochelle

Practising Lawyer and Part-Time University Instructor (Accounting, Commercial Law, Organizational Behaviour); Part-Time Federal Tribunal Member. Non-practising Chartered Professional Accountant (Chartered Accountant and Certified Management Accountant).
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