It's well-known that unethical acts can render research virtually unpublishable, but the cases we hear about tend to involve situations in which the methodology is tainted - for example, fabrication of data or unethical experimentation on humans.

Do unethical or unlawful acts that are tangential to actual research methodology likewise taint research?

For example:

  • A researcher is unlawfully present in the country in which they do the research, or lacks the legal status to do it there (e.g. overstaying visas, attending a university on a tourist visa, dodging a border checkpoint, etc.).
  • A researcher falsifies their academic credentials in order to get access to lab space, equipment, or grant money (e.g. the research itself is sound, but the researcher would not have been allowed unsupervised access to the university's microscopes had they known that he didn't actually have a PhD).
  • A researcher conducts research using stolen equipment or supplies.
  • A researcher commits a crime in order to hinder, delay, or incapacitate a rival researcher (e.g. sabotaging someone else's lab, murdering them, stealing their lab notes in order to deny them access to them, fabricating allegations to get them thrown in jail, deported from a country, expelled or fired from a university, etc.).
  • A researcher unlawfully uses performance-enhancing drugs without a prescription to maintain concentration on their work.
  • A researcher carries an unlawful weapon (e.g. concealed handgun without a permit, rifle unlawfully modified for full auto, etc.) for personal protection when gathering field data (e.g. where the researcher would have otherwise not gone there out of fear of violence).

Are there best practices or general principles on when such unethical acts taint research? Obviously, I'm not asking whether or not someone can, or should, get away with committing these acts, only whether or not they also would prevent publication. E.g. could someone say, "Yes, I blew up Dr. Smith's telescope and hit him with an axe so he couldn't beat me to publication, and I accept my 20-year prison sentence for that, but I was, in fact, the first to complete a spectrographic analysis of that planet and write it up so I should still be allowed to publish."?

This is not a request for personal advice! I'm just curious as to what actually happens or is supposed to happen in these cases.

My "guts" say that this would depend on the degree of non-academic misconduct - for example, that murdering a rival would prevent publication while parking unlawfully in a no-parking zone in order to make it to a meeting on time would not, but is this actually the case? Is every case evaluated independently, or is there a bright-line rule?

  • 2
    My guess is that every journal does what they want. – user9646 Aug 17 '18 at 16:29
  • 1
    I know of one researcher who was caught sabotaging a competitor's equipment by urinating on it, yet who still went on to win a Nobel prize. – Buzz Aug 18 '18 at 0:50
  • 1
    @Buzz Is this public knowledge? If so, who was it? – Captain Emacs Aug 18 '18 at 12:44
  • 1
    I think OP should consider the more concrete case of whether data obtained from experiments on humans in totalitarian states are suitable to be used for publication. This is a very concrete ethical problem. It may encourage researchers to obtain their data in countries where human rights are regularly and/or drastically violated and there is no proper ethics board. – Captain Emacs Aug 18 '18 at 12:46
  • 3
    @CaptainEmacs I don't know how well known it is, but it is not a secret. The culprit was Sam Ting. – Buzz Aug 18 '18 at 18:36

First, I think there is an important distinction to be made between unethical and illegal.

While most things that are illegal are also unethical (e.g., murder, theft), there are many cases where the laws themselves are either clearly unethical (e.g., slavery) or may be considered unethical by a reasonable person (e.g., prohibitions on stem cell research).

Let us thus consider only unethical acts unrelated to research, whether illegal or not. Here, I think there are at least two good motivations for considering unethical acts that do not directly call the methodology into question:

  • Concern about honesty: If you find out that somebody has been gratuitously lying in other aspects of their life, it's entirely reasonable to wonder whether they would feel comfortable lying in their research as well. Motivation matters here: a person lying to protect themselves or to cover a sexual infidelity is not particularly relevant, while a person lying with the intention of advancing themselves or hurting others is of much more concern. In this case, there is no "smoking gun" indicating results should be withdrawn, but it would be entirely reasonable to do a careful process re-review of their work for validity in the light of the new knowledge.

  • Punishment: If a person does terrible things that damage the scientific community or the larger community, one may wish to exile them and their research as part of the punishment, in order to make it clear one should not expect to profit from such behavior. This is clearest in the case of unethical acts directly related to research, such as sabotaging a rival or non-consensual medical experiments, even when they don't invalidate the methodology and conclusions. It's less clear what one should do about the scientific legacy of say, an abusive rapist who happens to also be a highly successful mathematician.

    There is still no clear consensus on what to do in such cases, even in the case of Nazi medical research. Personally, I favor the approach suggested by some of using only when no other citation is possible, and then without a formal citation and with inclusion of an explanation of why this research is problematic. Should this be extended to lesser criminals like rapists and abusers? Unclear, though I think it's certainly worth considering for those who poison a scientific community with their behavior.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    +1 but I would like to point out that ethics is time- and culture-dependent. Since you mention slavery, today's ethical standards would bring into question the technological advances made by ancient civilizations that employed slaves, such as Ancient Egypt, if they were made today. However, it seems to me that nobody is ignoring the technological and scientific legacy from those cultures. Perhaps in 1000 years the horrors of Nazi Germany will seem so distant to future humans as Ancient Egypt's slavery seems to us. – Miguel Aug 18 '18 at 1:48

I don't think there are "best practices" for that. For those to develop, this would first need to be a somewhat widespread issue (nowadays), which I am not aware to be the case. In principle, non of the examples would prevent publication of the research, although your second example (faked credentials) would certainly lead to high scrutiny of the manuscript. If a researcher were known to have pretended to have a PhD in the first place, I assume a reviewer or editor would not take his data and reported results in quite the same good faith as we usually do with other researchers.

It should also be noted that how the community would react to a paper is a different question - in your murder example, maybe a manuscript could still be accepted in principle after this, but it is difficult to imagine that the community would give the axe-wielding author much recognition for being first to publish their analysis.

| improve this answer | |

I doubt that there is any way in which unethical personal behavior will taint the research itself. It may cause the person who does the research to be shunned and condemned, but the research stands on it own.

There are, for example, a couple of examples, one from mathematics and the other from computing (EE, specifically), in which the practitioners were terrible, virulent, racists and spoke out about their hateful beliefs. But no one questions their contributions to research, and in the EE case, the operation of your computer depends fundamentally on it. But people speak out against the views of these folks and name them as perpetrators of evil.

For a young academic to behave unethically, even outside the academic world, you might find yourself unemployable, publicly condemned, and shunned. Not a pleasant thing.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.