Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How do we deal with accusations?

In a previous blog entry I demonstrated an example of what I called "CV bloat" with reuse of previously published material. I wrote to the person involved and asked if he could give any clarification on the matter. He wrote a very nice letter back, explaining the situation.

In his letter he raised another, very valid point. Should I have blogged this publicly? This would seem to be also against the DFG rules:
Trotz ihrer zum Teil gegensätzlichen Rollen teilen der Beschuldigte, seine Institution und derjenige, der Zweifel an der Arbeit geäußert hat, das Ziel einer möglichst schnellen Aufklärung der vorgebrachten Verdächtigungen ohne öffentliches Aufsehen. (Despite their opposing roles, all three parties - the accused, the institution to which he or she belongs, and the accuser - should have the goal of a quick clearing up of the matter without public attention. [emphasis mine])
The DFG rules go on to describe a long process that must be conducted in utmost secrecy. Indeed, I can see that this is important in a case where we have A and B, each with a copy of the same text, and it must be determined who copied from whom. And it would be important for the accusers to be able to remain anonymous, although in many cases that I see (doctoral theses copying word-for-word from diploma or master's or bachelor's theses they mentored) it is trivial to guess who must have blown the whistle.

But how can we discuss questions of what is acceptable and what is not, if we do not do it publicly? No one will discuss the topic unless there is a concrete case at hand that starts people thinking and asking questions.

I have spoken about this reuse with a number of colleagues in the past few days and have found that many do not find this to be a problem, although I have pointed out that in many grant applications and applications for professorships only a quantitative analysis of the CV is done (I must emphasize that in in this particular case it was an online CV, not one used for any particular purpose!). If on the one hand it is okay to reuse text in multiple circumstances without referring to the previous usage, then we shouldn't be just counting publications as if they were beans.

If it is not okay to reuse text, i.e. publish the same text in multiple venues without referring to the prior publication(s), then we have a problem on our hands. How do we go about telling active researchers that their current practice is not okay? How do we tell beginning researchers what is considered to be out of line? I find us coming back to the question often asked me by students: How many words to I have to change so that it is not plagiarism?

I feel very strongly that we need to get discussions of all facets of scientific integrity out of the closet, so to speak. We need to discuss openly what options are available for reusing text - among many, many other topics such as "cleaning up" data and ghostwriting and making up publications that never happened and all the little things that come out now and then.

Or am I too far off base here and should this be done behind closed doors?

1 comment:

  1. "But how can we discuss questions of what is acceptable and what is not, if we do not do it publicly? No one will discuss the topic unless there is a concrete case at hand that starts people thinking and asking questions. ...I feel very strongly that we need to get discussions of all facets of scientific integrity out of the closet, so to speak ... Or am I too far off base here and should this be done behind closed doors? " (from your Blog)

    Dear Debora,
    NO, you are not far off; you are right to the point. Please be assured by/of people out there who feel exactly and strongly like you about the need for openness. The concrete case at http://www.wissenschaftliche-gepflogenheiten.de is an example and indeed quotes Dr. von Kalm (DFG) about the importance to improve in public the awareness of what is good scientific practise and what is unacceptable. Therefore, please continue also your effort that is important - and is much appreciated.

    Kind regards.

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