Brief thoughts about academic honesty

Always tell the truth – they tell you when you are a kid – I think I quickly learned that ALWAYS telling the truth is not always the best idea – lies of omission (especially to my mother) save a lot of pain all around and are sometimes diplomatically the best way forward.

Recently an academic at Duke, Anil Potti, resigned and retracted several science papers because his work couldn’t be reproduced by himself or other scientists in his field. Potti also had apparently lied on his CV saying he was a Rhodes scholar when he wasn’t although he later explained he was a Finalist as a Rhodes scholar.

What I wonder about this story is if this is a combination of overselling your scientific results and spinning your CV too much or actual academic misconduct. I think the results are out still, but this incident is worrying none the less.

When I think about the lovely art of CV writing, and that bit of grant writing in that distressing section where you basically have to convince the reviewers you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, I always have a little shudder. I hate writing those things, largely because sometimes when you write them down they don’t sound quite right. For example, I was a fisheries feild technician when I was 22, which sounds a whole lot better to me than the actual job of hauling around heavy equipment in the woods and counting fish.

OK so you obviously can’t lie as in I have 50 papers in Nature that all have been cited at least 400 times (though some people do this, and actually get away with it (at least in the short term)) but where do you draw the line?

For instance, I held a grant where I was the PI, however the post-doc on the grant was almost entirely supervised by the co-PI. While I had a central role with supervision of our student, do I say I supervised the post-doc? Do I give some lengthy boring explanation about how our management structure works? The opposite also happens, you may not be a *formal* supervisor but turn into one through the course of a collaboration. Do you list this? Keep in mind you only have 2 pages (at most) to list how wonderful you are.

I realize that these are boring examples and this isn’t really dishonesty per se but this is where the hard part lies sometimes. Do you make it sound better or worse? One of the problems I believe is that as an academic your specific roles aren’t always clear – lots of us interact and collaborate with alot of people and writing it down on paper isn’t necessarily always easy. And if you try to be humble and under sale yourself – you probably won’t get funded. Its like getting a house, its hard to make that first step onto the ladder these days, and hard to get funded (its getting harder). And though I have held a few grants, I don’t currently have one and as a result I don’t currently have any of my very own students or post-docs but I desperately need some if I want my research career to continue.

And this is part of the problem – desperation to get funded, while MOST academics (I believe) don’t intentionally lie, someone might disagree with your assessment of something so dull as ‘she didn’t really supervise that post-doc’ – and then if you make a mistake in your scientific research years later would it come out as “Charlatan scientists claims control over other people’s resources” ?

I have a feeling that Potti’s case is probably more complex than this, given that he has made the news in the New York Times and has actually resigned. Scientists do make mistakes and do own up to them and retract papers without loosing their jobs. Most famous example I can think of is Stephen Hawking – so something seems strange about Potti’s story.

But as @DrAustPHD said on twitter: Pressure system enough: people will short cut (& worse).

This is a frightening thought in some respects but I think on the whole most people DON’T fudget their results (though they do make mistakes) and most people are honest about what they say about themselves. And the good news is, if you out and out lie? You often get found out in the end….

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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2 Responses to Brief thoughts about academic honesty

  1. Aziz says:

    Hey, i feel an anger, and I really hope “they” listen to you someday and give you this fund that you need! The establishement of truth shouldn’t be quantified by increasing number of good reasons and/or achievements indeed (that can be fake or not): it comes from an increase of the consensus, which is a matter of time, because “truth is not good to hear” I guess. Be patient, dear, you’re time will come back…

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