Reporting system is broken

Professors’ repeated attempts to halt research misconduct met with inaction

Some academics  have engaged in “salami slicing” — repeating sections from their own previously published work.
Some academics have engaged in “salami slicing” — repeating sections from their own previously published work.
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In the last few months, I’ve read with interest articles in the Journal regarding Dr. Mort Shirkhanzadeh and his concerns over research integrity, and the various Letters to the Editor on the subject. All point to a flawed system. 

Over the years, I’ve presented similar concerns regarding duplicated materials to various administrators at a number of universities. I’ve had the impression that these universities didn’t want to hear my concerns. 

Accused individuals have a right to privacy and confidentiality, but I have a right, and an obligation, to report what I’ve found. Universities and Federal agencies also have a right and responsibility to properly address these concerns. The ultimate goal is to correct the scientific literature. I’ve never been told that my concerns aren’t valid — instead I’ve been kept in the dark.

Some universities never responded to me or claimed they lost my emails in their inbox. Just as an example, many years ago, I was told to formally write up my allegations and the university would forward them to the accused’s lawyer. 

Within the last year, I sent one concern directly to a university and another was sent indirectly to the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR), which investigates on behalf of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). They requested permission to send my concerns to the university. I gave my permission, but have heard nothing since. As far as I know, nothing happened.

In the first case, I provided a long list of papers with very similar titles, which I think is reasonable to say would make someone suspicious. I was told that the list wasn’t covered by the university’s policy on academic misconduct. 

Therefore, I subsequently began to find the papers and not surprisingly when I did, I saw that many were redundant or contained “salami slicing” — which is partial repetition of one’s own previous work. I subsequently began to send these papers in a number of emails to the university, where the accused professor was employed, and don’t know what happened to my concerns.

In another case, I sent an example of some duplicated material and told the administration that there were additional duplications. As part of the response I was told that there was considerable overlap, and that I should go and have a cup of tea with the accused.

It was as if there was a “secret” that some knew and some didn’t and I was going to be enlightened by this professor! 

In reality, these individual cases aren’t important, except to indicate that there’s something wrong with the academic review and reward systems. 

Dr. Shirkhanzadeh is fighting for a change to the system and should be congratulated for his moral courage and stamina that have brought this issue to light. 

To me this case is but a symptom of a bigger problem in universities, which is really about human behaviour. 

Over the last 30 years, universities have changed. 

We now have managers (administrators), workers (professors) and customers (students). In this new corporate culture everything is to be counted. In a meeting I recently attended, a professor announced that he didn’t have time to review candidates’ materials, but he supported the candidate with the highest publication rate. 

It’s clear that quantity beats quality, because quality is difficult to evaluate. If redundant publication, self-plagiarism, “salami slicing” and ghost co-authorship aren’t misconduct, but instead are now acceptable and a part of the “game” of science, then maybe universities and Federal agencies could inform all academics. Then we would have a level playing field. 

If this type of activity were deemed acceptable then we wouldn’t bother reporting these cases.

The big question is this: why do researchers feel it necessary to take these inappropriate actions and what’s the financial cost? 

A reward system has been created, based mainly on the amount of work produced. In an academic system, the rewards include promotion, tenure, research funding and awards from professional societies. In reality, the standards for academic integrity belong to the academics not to the administration. 

This problem may be national and even international. Is it too big for us? In our research, we can tackle problems bigger than ourselves. Can we not collectively tackle a big ethical problem? Maybe there’s neither funding nor glory in that endeavour. Research misconduct has many effects, but certainly wastes time and resources and damages the public trust.

To me this isn’t a crisis but an opportunity to bring the ethical standards in our profession(s) to a higher level and resolve this issue. Then, just maybe, we could lead in academic integrity.

Dr. Chris Pickles is a professor in Queen’s Robert M. Buchan Department of Mining. 

Corrections

September 26, 2015
The following article has been edited to clarify that the Secretariat on Responsible Conduct of Research (SRCR) investigates on behalf of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

The Journal regrets the error.

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