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A couple of decades ago I graduated from a Russian university with an MS in physics, and my MS thesis contained a critical flaw. In short, the thesis was about static perturbations in a certain physical system, but the system itself is unstable in the very same model, with the instability length being comparable to the characteristic size of the static perturbations in question. The whole investigation didn't make any scientific sense, because the assumed physical system can't be physically realized in the first place.

I discovered the flaw a few months before submitting my thesis. It happened rather accidentally: I wanted to formally prove that the system is stable, but the result of my calculations showed that the opposite is true. I had never heard from my supervisor, who had given me the problem for my thesis, or from his colleagues that the system may be unstable. Everyone simply did not even think about that possibility.

After I discovered the flaw, I faced the dilemma as to what to do about it.

My final choice was to tell no one, even my supervisor, and simply go on to get my MS degree, deliberately failing to mention my stability analysis and its outcome in my thesis and thereby concealing the flaw. I did so because getting my MS degree asap and moving abroad for PhD studies was my highest priority. If I had raised the issue about the flaw, I would have had to start my MS project over, if allowed at all, and spend two more years to get my MS degree.

I should have performed the stability analysis at the very beginning of my MS project, but I didn't, and it's partially a fault of my supervisor, who directed my work in a very rigid way, giving me very specific tasks and deadlines. He never told me to check whether the system is stable. The official research plan, which he and I signed, did not contain any mention of a stability analysis. It was my own initiative to try to prove that the system is stable, because I felt that this was needed to make my investigation complete. I didn't even talk to my supervisor about my idea to perform the stability analysis. After I discovered the flaw, I was sure that if I talked to my supervisor about it, he would say the whole MS project had to be canceled. A product of the Soviet era, he was ruthlessly strict in terms of norms and ethics and had little compassion towards students.

After I submitted my thesis, my supervisor insisted that I write and publish an article based on the thesis. I didn't want to do it, but I had to. After all, I needed good recommendation letters from my supervisor, so I had to obey. The article was published in a reputable American journal and was later cited about 20 times. Writing that article was the most unpleasant experience in my scientific career.

To clarify, neither my thesis nor the paper claimed that the system is stable. That the system is stable was an implicit inherent assumption of the model, and it was quite a popular model at that time. The model was invented and used for other purposes well before I even started my MS project. That is, my advisor gave me a known model that no one knew to be faulty at the time, and asked me to use it for a new purpose. As explained above, I accidentally discovered and deliberately concealed that the assumption that the system is stable is wrong and can be shown to be wrong in the framework of the very same model, so the model is inherently self-contradictory regardless of the purpose of its use.

As I expected, no one found the flaw, so I successfully got my MS degree in Russia, moved abroad, got a Western PhD degree, and some years later published an article explaining the flaw. In that article, I explicitly wrote that the model and all articles based on it are invalid science. I cited some articles, including my article based on the MS thesis, as examples of invalid science. No one published a comment in response. In private conversations, my colleagues confirmed that my conclusion about the flaw is correct. And the faulty model practically stopped being used after that.

Many years have passed since then, and I have built a solid career and have articles published in Physical Review Letters, even as the first author, but I still feel uneasy about the fact that I started my academic career with a misleading MS thesis and deliberately concealed the flaw in order to graduate smoothly.

I understand that what I did is a research misconduct, but the question I'm still struggling to find the answer to is whether my research misconduct was ethically justifiable under the circumstances. My colleagues say it was, but I'm unsure whether they are frank about it, so I really want to hear what other people have to say. I want truly impartial answers from people who do not know me. This is why I'm posting my question here.

Here are some additional details:

  1. If I had not concealed the flaw, I would almost certainly have not become a scientist at all, because I could not afford two more undergraduate years in Russia. My parents didn't want to help me financially any further, so I had to get my MS degree asap and move abroad. At that time (late 1990s), living in Russia was very hard because of an economic crisis. Besides, even if I had found a way to finance the additional undergraduate years in Russia, the delay of my graduation would have harmed my chances to win the prestigious Western PhD stipend that I won.

  2. Formally speaking, my MS thesis and the article based on it might be seen as not containing any flaw, because I was given a specific physical model and investigated static perturbations within the framework of that model as requested; the fact that the model is faulty is a separate, although related, thing. The message of my thesis was essentially that if we take that model and make those calculations, we get those results. It was a valid message per se. I was just an undergraduate student who had to do what the supervisor said. He gave me the model and requested certain calculations. I did them absolutely accurately and wrote up the results.

  3. My MS project wasn't a significant research project anyway. It was rather a training project to learn how to do calculations and write up results. Even if the model were not faulty, the article would not have had any considerable impact. No one used the results of that project. People merely cited my paper.

  4. The only harm due to me concealing the flaw was that a number of scientists continued using the same faulty model for other purposes, unsuspecting that the model is faulty. If I had told them that the model is faulty, they would have spent their research efforts for something more useful. But that would have put my own career in danger, because exposing the flaw too early might have resulted in a retraction of my MS degree and a subsequent termination of my PhD studies. I didn't want to take that risk.

Was my research misconduct ethically justifiable under the circumstances? Or should I have reported the flaw right after I discovered it, even at the huge expense explained above? Or what should I have done after I discovered the flaw?

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  • Various clarifications have been edited into the (now very long) post; some answers and opinions have been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting a comment below this one.
    – cag51
    Aug 5 at 16:07

10 Answers 10

83

Honestly, this sounds more like a philosophical / personal ethics question than an professional ethics question.

The "academic ethics" answers are what you already know: Withholding important relevant information when you publish something is definitely wrong. And, having done that, calling attention to it later (which you did) was the right thing to do. Beyond that, I think you're left in the messy world of being an imperfect human with competing needs and obligations and motivations.

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  • 32
    "...you're left in the messy world..." as are we all.
    – Buffy
    Aug 4 at 20:36
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Just to make the advice formal, you were most likely wrong in not bringing the issue to your advisor when you noticed it. But, given your point 2, that might not have changed anything. On the other hand, it might have delayed your degree while you came to a more complete result.

But, with few exceptions, such as those that literally harm other people, such errors in the past can and should be left in the past. This is especially true if you have learned from them and don't intend to repeat them. Panic is understandable and usually forgivable for such things. In some religions, for example, there is the concept of "forgiveness" that don't require public confessions. No one is perfect. No one always does the right thing. But if we learn from our mistakes we do can better the next time.

So, your ethics at the time are questionable, and you likely committed a violation. But, let it rest.

And, you aren't responsible for the fact that others used the same faulty model. That is on them. Had you developed the model yourself and hid its flaws (misrepresented them) then the issue would be more serious. But if it was accepted at the time then it is an artifact of scientific enquiry.

You may have an opportunity, actually, though it would be awkward to exploit it. If that model is still being used, leading to suboptimal results, you could make your misgivings known. It shouldn't require a confession of guilt to do so either.


You are probably too hard on yourself in point 1.

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    "And, you aren't responsible for the fact that others used the same faulty model." - you mean, except for publishing that model with a known flaw, and willfully concealing the fact from everybody?
    – Steve
    Aug 5 at 4:05
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    @Steve The model was invented and used for other purposes well before I even started my MS project. My advisor gave me a known model, which no one knew to be faulty at the time, and asked me to use it for a new purpose.
    – Sandra
    Aug 5 at 8:07
  • 18
    I disagree that it was wrong not to bring it to the adviser, on an absolute scale. What is wrong is a system that would require a student to "do again a thesis" if such a flaw would have been detected. What is furthermore wrong is the adviser that is forcing him to write a paper. He is at the end of a chain with a flawed advisor in a flawed system. He did wrong, but definitely less than anyone else in this story.
    – Mayou36
    Aug 5 at 12:05
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    "You may have an opportunity... you could make your misgivings known" -- but this was already done by OP: "some years later published an article explaining the flaw. In that article, I explicitly wrote that the model and all articles based on it are invalid science... And the faulty model practically stopped being used after that."
    – nanoman
    Aug 5 at 15:21
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    @Mayou36 Let me express my agreement with you. It is often forgotten that the point of a thesis - MSc, PhD, whichever - is NOT to contribute to science. It is to demonstrate the student's ability to conduct proper scientific research. Conducting an in-depth analysis of a system for years, and then making an autonomous discovery that the fundamental physical model, that has seen widespread usage, has an inherent and fundamental flaw that invalidates or limits it - what else could prove this ability more? And yet, the focus is way too often on the result, and not the work.
    – Neinstein
    Aug 5 at 22:33
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You had a tough choice to make under difficult conditions. To me what you did seems reasonable, I might have acted similarly in your place.

You did publish the flaw, just not as soon as you discovered it. Unless it was being used in real-life systems and people came to physical harm because of the flaw during that publishing delay, I don't think you have too much to beat yourself up about.

It might have been possible to include the flaw in your thesis (I personally feel it would have made it stronger, not weaker, if other people were using the model without being aware of the flaw), but I guess we'll never know how things would have gone for you if you'd done that.

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One option is to focus on the future not the past. Can you do something to make sure no one junior to you is in that position?

An ethical test I was taught is to imagine what you did is one day printed as a scandal story in the New York Times. To put it in a bad light:

"Famous professor concealed fatal flaw in early research study. Morals questioned"

What would you want your truthful response to be?

You could already have in the article:

"Friends of Dr. X note that they were in a precarious position at the time, not in charge of the direction of the research, and published their findings once they were in a secure professional position and able to do so."

But even more than that one might hope to be able to add:

"Students of Dr. X rushed to defend them. 'Dr. X has always run their lab so that no student would ever be in that position.' The student continued, 'Dr, X. always has us double-check our studies for those kind of fundamental flaws, and ensures that anyone whose study does fall apart just before submission is helped to graduate, or given the extra funding they need. They have become a champion of data honesty in the field, and they passionately support journals that help scientists publish their 'failures' to encourage honesty in research."

I've laid it on a bit thick, and I'm not in the sciences, but hopefully this is helpful: is there something you can do to take the responsibility you feel (earned or not) and pay it forward?

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I don't think that your MS thesis has a "fatal flaw". While I do recognize that being physically possible is nice, it's not necessary. There is the entire field of abstract mathematics and I've never heard anyone seriously claiming that it's immoral and/or "academic malpractice" to be a mathematician. You never claimed that it were stable, just that if it is, then it will behave in that way describe by you.

In fact, many contributions to physics are actual physically impossible. To give my favorite example: The schwarzschild (simple black hole) solution of general relativity (and the associated properties like the schwarzschild radius) implicitly requires a fully empty universe, which is impossible, still it's well known and important.

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Ethicality - and this includes professional ethicality too - of decisions has to include fair consideration of all important circumstances.

You mention two seemingly exigent circumstances:

  1. An overly strict supervisor who was intolerant of everyday mistakes and would likely have you start over on a new project - something that delay your plans by 2 years and put a question mark over your abilities.

  2. Financial limitations imposed by your parents on any further support for your studies.

You also imply en passant some other motives like wanting to move abroad for both academic and personal reasons.

If these circumstances were true and, more importantly, complete insofar as no other facts enabling a resolution of the ethical challenge without incurring the alleged handicaps have not been omitted by you, then you should not be so morose about it all.

But nobody here can assuage your doubts or feelings of guilt on the ethicality of your decision: we were not students of your supervisor in your Russian university and cannot evaluate the "facts" that you presented to us.

Your fellow academics - I assume this includes several from Russian universities just like you - will not bother to think too hard on your behalf. There is no point in expecting anything like objectivity from a wife or partner due to their prior emotional involvement with and investment in you.

Assuaging your own doubts and/or guilt is really one for a psychologist.

Personally I don't think this is a big deal. I think it not uncommon in academia when certain salient facts are concealed from those entitled to know where it disadvantages the informer.

Take a situation where Dr X of some department at U o Y who patiently prepares a bid for research funding for investigation of matters A, B, C and D related to a technology Z. After 2 years the bid is successful and a grant totalling say $3 million is awarded, the grant to be drawn down in $750,000 tranches as work on A, B, C and D commence.

Now suppose just after the research grant is awarded but before tranche 1 is drawn down, some PhD student doing exploratory work around study A discovers that the intended experimental approach to A is not going to work at all; in fact a much simpler approach involving available equipment will produce all the necessary data and understanding of that phenomenon. Moreover that student's work around A also indicates that studies B, C and D are likely to be much simpler and cheaper. Do you think that Dr X is going to immediately phone Professor W at the research council and ask him to cut the research grant to about $800,000 due to their recent discoveries ? Or that Dr X's Dean of Research would allow him to do so given its likely effect on how the department would be viewed for preliminary diligence on funding bids and the knock-on effect on future bids ? And that's to say nothing on the department's own operating budget and cash flow projection.

4

Your assumptions about the cost of telling your advisor about the flaw are very likely wrong. Discovering that a widely used physical model is flawed is a contribution which is definitely strong enough for a master thesis. So, to answer your question, you should have told your advisor, submitted your proof of instability as a thesis, received a well deserved excellent grade, and gone on with your career. The second best thing would be to tell them after your graduation was sealed, but before submitting the paper.

Regardless: for a young student, feeling confused and scared about the situation is understandable, and, in legal parlance, it is clearly a mitigating circumstance. It does not nullify the fact that there was a misconduct, though. Even if nobody "used" your result, it did its share of the damage: the more papers about the model are published, the less conceivable it is that it may be invalid. However, by now, if there were any such damage, you have clearly undone it. And even the most heinous crimes, which this one is not, usually have statute of limitation.

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  • 3
    Yes, I thought about that at the time and saw a big problem: it takes only a couple of weeks to prove the instability, while my MS project was supposed to be two years long. My discovery of the instability invalidated all the results I had obtained in the previous one-and-a-half years. Those results had already been mentioned in my formal reports on the progress of my MS project. Furthermore, it was a negative result in the sense that a certain model is invalid. Nothing positive. And I might have been blamed for not performing the stability analysis earlier.
    – Sandra
    Aug 6 at 11:08
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    The solution you propose might have worked, but, given the rigid bureaucratic system and my close-minded advisor, I highly doubt it would have.
    – Sandra
    Aug 6 at 11:08
  • 2
    I think the main idea of this answer is an interesting opinion, but not necessarily valid in any given individual case. It is the advisor who decides these things, not we. There is/was serious risk involved.
    – Buffy
    Aug 6 at 12:31
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    @Buffy Yes. You only have to read some of the post-WW2 Russian novels to see the crude sensibilities of quite a share of those in authority in USSR back then. Of course there were exceptions too. But Sandra was the person "under the guns" so only he could really judge the risk.
    – Trunk
    Aug 6 at 13:37
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    ...on general grounds, you cannot assign open research problems as master thesis topics and not have any safety net in the case it doesn't work. I've seen all kinds of failed projects, including e.g. discovering at the last moment that the results of the thesis are not new, and people still graduated...
    – Kostya_I
    Aug 6 at 14:29
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The general question:

Is it ethically justifiable to conceal a fatal conceptual flaw in a thesis

No, it's not justifiable to do so, regardless of the circumstances.

In some extreme circumstances (e.g. gun-to-your-head, not the circumstances your predicament) it might be excusable, but not justifiable.

to avoid an unaffordable 2-year setback if the flaw is the advisor's fault?

People who are not you, nor your advisor, nor in the same department/university as the both of you, should not have faulty research misrepresented to them because of inter-personal or intra-institutional issues between the authors of the research.


Your specific case

I agree with Ernest Bredar's answer: Your M.Sc. was not fatally flawed. It was somewhat flawed. Not to mention the fact that your analysis might apply in a somewhat-similar situation where the system is stable.

I didn't want to do it, but I had to.

You didn't have to.

I still feel uneasy about the fact that I started my academic career with a misleading MS thesis and deliberately concealed the flaw in order to graduate smoothly.

Luckily, your ethical misdeed did not seem to lead researchers along invalid paths, and once you published the extra paper, you may not have been "absolved", but you cut off the possibility of future "damage" of your action, which is about the best you could hope for.

Yes, you did something wrong. No, you probably would not have lost your M.Sc. over it (AFAICT). You'll just have to acknowledge that you are not a morally perfect person - and also, that not all crimes, let alone misdeeds, are punished; so you can't be purified or excused by suffering or punishment.

Try to use your sense of guilt as a motivator to do right by others, and to encourage your students to be honest and forthcoming, on the one hand, and forgiving on the other. That's a sort of penance, or atonement, that to me seems fitting.

3

There are already better answers in this thread but as mentioned elsewhere, this is more to do with personal ethics/philosophy. In this sense citing Nietzsche seems pertinent (needless to say, when taken with a grain of salt):

One is healthy when one can laugh at the earnestness and zeal with which one has been hypnotized by any single detail of our life, and the bite of conscience is like a dog biting on a stone.

That which happened already happened, and moreover, could not have possibly happened otherwise.

Another point that I didn't see emphasized here is that rather than brooding away and being remorseful about this event, which has absolutely no value after all this time, and what is more, benefits no one, you could actually think of ways of benefiting others to make up for whatever you feel you have to make up for.

Indeed you seem to be in a position to spread some valuable lessons. E.g. you could sensibilise coworkers to be lenient and flexible to students in such situations and, what is more, lecture the students about both sides of the coin as you most clearly elaborate in your questions here.

Finally, it might be worth mentioning (another ethical standpoint) that frequently great things have muddy/dark beginnings. I would highly recommend once studying Heraclitus' unity of opposites.

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You are in the clear, provided you have never published anything you knew to be flawed at the time you handed in your final checked page proofs.

The grey area here is that MSc and PhD theses do count as a publication of sorts, although most people will know that there usually are many loose ends and (too) many theses are extremely rough around the edges.

If the thesis is available online or on a shelf in the university, then someone may consult it and be led astray or at the very least waste some of their time. And this something you should feel uneasy about (but not too uneasy... there is a strange herd instinct in academia where everybody keeps working on the same thing everybody else does, long after the flaws have become well known to anyone able to understand the point). You can write a short erratum, outlining that there is an important caveat on the results of the thesis, and ask the library or whoever manages your MSc thesis as a public resource to ensure that the erratum is physically or electronically merged with the thesis.

This is essentially how you would fix a flaw with a publication in a physical journal, where the flaw has become apparent to you after its appearance in the public domain.

There is no logical reason why this should not work, except that you are operating within the Russian system, which can be horribly inflexible and unreasonable...

As to whether you earned the MSc, yes and no. You demonstrated sufficient ability to the satisfaction of the evaluators at the time, so yes. Still, you ought to have had the scientific courage and frankness to inform your supervisor, so no.

You were afraid to speak up at the time fearing it would engender a whole lot of trouble for you with no positive outcome for anyone at the end. I understand that. I have had a Russian PhD student who was traumatised by her former Russian supervisor, and she described him in almost the same words you are describing yours.

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  • Please read the question carefully before posting…in this case, OP states that they did publish an article that they knew to be flawed.
    – cag51
    Aug 6 at 15:15
  • @cag51 Surely not quite flawed as it provided the correct calculated answers to the scenarios posited for a putative model applied to a physical system. That such scenarios would never be realizable due to this model's instability for this system is a fact of interest for researchers in the field. Yet I think we can take it that there was adequate work done on this hypothetical model to acquit Sandra for an MS degree.
    – Trunk
    Aug 7 at 15:28

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