Research Ethics: Recent War Stories

A recurrent theme during the last few months has been research ethics. And, for me, there is a question in each case which concerns the motivation to behave unethically, and a second question about whether there are research integrity processes in each institution involved. There is also a subsidiary question which might be phrased as: “Exactly how stupid do you think the reviewers or your colleagues are?”

Example 1: Plagiarism

Recently I was a reviewer for submissions to a special issue of a journal. The special issue attracted so few submissions that I was given only one paper to review.

The paper smelled. There was no real introduction to the paper, poor focus on the research aspects of the work, poor argumentation, a messy narrative, and there were changes in writing style in the paper that were awkward. It took little effort to find that parts of the paper were copy-pasted from websites. Worse still, images from the websites were included in the paper and presented as the authors' own work.

The outcome. The paper was rejected and authors were told that a reviewer had “claimed” their paper contained plagiarised material. I gave the publishers irrefutable evidence of the plagiarism and they failed to follow their own process on plagiarism.

The authors' actions are something of a puzzle. Poor writing in papers that are rushed to completion in time for a deadline is understandable. Including unattributed, verbatim passages and images in papers, is much less understandable. What were the co-authors doing? What was their role in the writing process? Did they collude to plagiarise? Were they not diligent when reviewing the paper prior to submission? And then there is the question of what has happened in the author group and the institution when plagiarism has been demonstrated?

Example 2: Not Research

January 2023 was a busy month for reviews. One journal article I was asked to review consisted of 41 pages – imagine the work required to read and review a paper of that length! The article was, outwardly, plausible. However, there was a smell: there was a lot of work in the article where almost every statistical test possible was used to analyse a survey where respondents used a 5 point Likert scale. Working through the smoke and mirrors it was clear that the authors had asked subjects to complete a survey with 8 questions where the only viable responses were “agree” or “strongly agree”. Multiple pages of the article were devoted to showing that the data was not normally distributed – can we guess the conclusion? And then trying to argue that when subjects completed a completely biased survey that their responses could support a valid conclusion.

The research was borderline stupid, badly designed and executed, and the way it was reported was deceitful and intended to hide the weakness of the research. The attempt at deception is unethical. The journal editor could have desk rejected the article, but at 41 pages that is a lot of their time. So, the paper reached the reviewers.

There were two authors listed for the article, and it is impossible to know if the second author approved of the work or was, perhaps, allowing the first author to fail. There are also other possibilities.

Example 3: Deceit

During the last few weeks, colleagues submitted a paper to a conference and included me as a co-author. I had not contributed in any way to the paper and had not seen the paper prior to submission. I had also not been asked if I would be a co-author. Generally, I would think that there is no justification whatsoever to add me as a co-author. However, the colleagues seem to have thought otherwise.

Question: “Exactly how stupid do you think the reviewers or your colleagues are?”

Returning to the question in the introductory paragraph. I would really like to know the answer. Somehow, I suspect the question is unanswerable, Those behaving unethically may lack the capacity to appreciate that others can see through their actions.