47

After a series of unethical incidents that affected me directly in my previous academic institution, I managed to move to a higher ranked department in my field about seven years ago. I am now in the hiring committee in my current institution and one of the candidates who is being considered is from my former institution.

There are two unethical practices that the candidate performed that I am aware of. One is that he managed to squeeze in as a third author on a finished paper and he thus made no contribution. I did most of the work for the paper and the paper was finished when my co-author added this person's name and submitted it. The second incident is that the candidate has announced in the past how he has changed his research results before submission to please the editor of a top journal in my field. He did this in the early years of his career. There are others in my former institution who know about it but they find this to be no big deal.

I am considering doing one of the following:

  1. Discuss this with my current dept.
  2. Keep quiet and stay in the committee.
  3. Keep quiet but step down from the committee

For your information, I am a foreigner whose work is appreciated by everyone. However, I feel that I will not get much support if I open up. I had tried this in my previous institution and I realized that only a couple of people supported me. What should I do?

  • Welcome to Academia.SE! It's an interesting question. I hope you don't mind me editing it, I didn't change the words at all, I just added some formatting marks to make the text easier to read. – yo' Jan 25 '15 at 23:23
  • 13
    By "changed the research results" do you mean "falsified/fabircated data"? – BrenBarn Jan 26 '15 at 0:49
  • 1
    How are you even asking? Of course you should report that… I don't understand. – o0'. Jan 26 '15 at 10:56
  • 3
    While the person might not have helped "you" on the research paper, are you sure that person didn't provide significant input/help to your co-author which is why your co-author might have decided to put their name on the paper? Maybe your co-author didn't want you to know they needed outside help to do their part while you were actually working on the paper. If you are going to potentially "tarnish" someone's reputation you better be sure. It is better to let several "bad guys" get through rather than "tarnish" a good person who doesn't deserve it. – Dunk Jan 26 '15 at 15:04
  • 5
    Report what you know. Don't repeat hearsay. – user28463 Jan 26 '15 at 19:08
40

If you're on the hiring committee, then your job is to evaluate the candidates. I see no need to back away from that (and by the way, I can't see what your being a "foreigner" could possibly have to do with any of this).

One has to exercise some restraint in repeating "hearsay" in official matters: unless you can find evidence about the changed research, I would hesitate to bring it up because it's hard for everyone else to independently evaluate. On the other hand, if you are a coauthor of a paper with the candidate in question, then your colleagues should be very interested to hear your take on that. I think you should certainly describe the candidate's contributions -- or lack thereof -- honestly to your colleagues. I might avoid putting the banner of "unethical behavior" on it: the ethics of it are really for your colleagues to evaluate as well, right? In general I think that in these kinds of matters it is more collegial and also more convincing to provide information which is factual rather than subjective or purely evaluative.

There is also the issue of why you, as the first author of a paper, allowed a coauthor whom you feel did absolutely nothing. Isn't that at least arguably unethical behavior on your part? I think it's better not to open that can of worms, but rather say that in fact the candidate's contribution to the joint work was minimal and that you do not feel like he should get much credit for it.

  • 20
    The question suggests that the candidate himself is the one who said he altered research results, in which case I wouldn't really call it hearsay. If someone brags about doing unethical things, I would consider that a red flag even if they didn't actually do those things. (Of course, you should still make it clear that you only have the person's own admission and not direct evidence of their fudging.) – BrenBarn Jan 26 '15 at 0:42
  • 2
    @Bren: You're right that it's not hearsay in the legal sense. I did use quotation marks, but I could have chosen a better word. But what if the person was joking or greatly exaggerating? The OP makes it clear that she doesn't think so, but also mentions that the rest of department might be a bit skeptical. Just repeating what you say someone said to you years ago is not necessarily very convincing. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '15 at 2:12
  • 6
    I should also say that I am a mathematician, not a scientist, and there is really no analogue in my line of work of "altering research results" in a way which is not transparent and detectable by any sufficiently interested party at any time. And isn't it possible that someone could ask why the OP didn't bring this up before, at a time when it could be properly investigated? All in all, this is the kind of thing I might say privately to my close friends, but I would (at least) hesitate to bring it up in a not fully supportive environment. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '15 at 2:16
  • 5
    I agree with @PeteL.Clark Explain your opinions working with him and your lack of enthusiasm. In this competitive job market I highly doubt a negative review from a co-author could lead to a hire. There is no need to go into details about academic misconduct unless they can be supported by some evidence; doing so could backfire. You signed off on him being on your paper (even if you were strong armed) and you claiming he fabricated data could look like you're bitter. Admitting to fabricating data seems far out there, but people have bragged about far worse things. – WetlabStudent Jan 26 '15 at 2:44
15

If committee members had to step down just because they knew something about a job candidate, no one would ever get hired (or at least no one good). My impression from serving on a hiring committee is that prior knowledge of the person's professional/research activities is a good thing, since it allows you to make a more informed decision about their merits. It would be appropriate to step down (or refrain from discussion of this candidate) if you had non-academic dealings with this person that might color your judgement (e.g., a romantic relationship, a business venture, a childhood friendship). Of course, you should clearly differentiate between evidence-based facts about the person and your own opinions of them, but I don't think it's wrong to mention your opinions to the committee.

That said, the two examples of "unethical behavior" you give seem quite different to me. Getting a third-author credit on a paper without doing much work doesn't seem like much of an ethical breach to me, unless the means by which this was achieved were themselves unethical (e.g., bribes or threats).

I'm not sure what you mean by "changed his research results", but if you mean "falsified his data", then that sounds seriously unethical. If you have evidence that the candidate has done this, you should definitely share that with the committee. If you don't have direct evidence, but you've heard the candidate himself admit to it, that's worth sharing too. If you've just heard secondhand rumors where other colleagues suggested the candidate had done this, that could be mentioned, but you should make it clear that you're only reporting about how the person is perceived by their colleagues, not anything you know for certain they actually did.

  • 13
    Can I ask a naive question? Why would someone admit to a colleague that he had falsified his data? That just doesn't make any kind of sense to me. And more colleagues at this old institution know about it but consider it "no big deal": huh?!? – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '15 at 2:20
  • @PeteL.Clark: I don't know, but as far as I can understand from the question, that is what the OP is saying this person did. – BrenBarn Jan 26 '15 at 4:55
  • 8
    -1 for "Getting a third-author credit on a paper without doing much work doesn't seem like much of an ethical breach to me." – The Almighty Bob Jan 26 '15 at 10:50
  • 2
    @PeteL.Clark Dishonest people often brag about their dishonest, unethical or even criminal behavior. This may seem incredible to honest people, but it is a real thing. I personally suspect that for some people dishonest behavior is about power/ego issues and bragging about it, though stupid, is one of the ways that they may ineptly try to further their ego/social power gains. – RBarryYoung Jan 26 '15 at 17:07
  • You know, when I wrote this 3 years ago, I had no idea how prophetic it would turn out to be ... – RBarryYoung Apr 10 '18 at 15:03
5

The failure to act against an unethical act is a breach of ethics in itself.

  1. If you have any evidence to suggest that he falsified the results, DO NOT step down. You will have failed your duty as an academician. You must report the facts. Whether or not he is chosen by the committee after that is a collective decision. It would definitely be wrong to deprive them of this very relevant information.
  2. If you disapprove of the way he nudged into your paper at the last minute, you must try to objectively decide if your disapproval is a result of your own prejudice. If you find that hard, you could consider consulting your co-author and seek to clarify the issue. If he fails this test, you are obligated to report this too. (Although, try not to colour it with your perspective. Cold, hard facts only.)

I disagree with an answer here that suggests you need 'infallible' proof. If you have reason to believe there is something wrong, you must share that intuition. It is what separates a hiring committee from an automatic resume-ranking tool. Be sure to separate the facts from your personal judgement. If you must err, do it on the side of caution. (Inform the committee, but let them know you aren't confident)

-2

If you make an accusation about any individual(s) you must have proof. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people get accused of things without proof. I myself have been accused of things I haven't committed. It's unethical to accuse without proof. Also, I personally believe the proof must be complete and infallible. Accusing someone of falsifying data is one of the most serious accusations that can be made in academia.

Now, if you yourself are certain about the person's guilt beyond any doubt in your own mind, then I believe you are well within your right to step down. You can explain to the others that you are ethically compelled to step down. If your "bosses" demand an explanation, then you can tell them that although you don't have proof about something committed by someone, you are personally 100% certain it took place. That way, if the unethical person gets hired, you will be blameless for that decision.

If you say you are stepping down for ethical reasons, I think it will generate great curiosity among your colleagues. They may demand an explanation. It seems to me that saying anything without proof that prevents a person from getting hired is legally risky.

  • 24
    "Also, the proof must be complete and infallible." Wait, what? The standard for accusing someone of murder is less than that. I'm sorry that you were wrongly accused and one should certainly not make accusations lightly, but that is not anyone's standard: just imagine all the wrongdoing that would go uncontested if that were the case. – Pete L. Clark Jan 25 '15 at 23:58
  • In the cases you complain about -- where you were wrongly accused -- presumably the problem is that you were accused of things that you didn't do, not just that you were accused without "complete and infallible" proof. The OP is asking about someone who did do something bad, so the situation (from OP's perspective) is different from yours. – Trevor Wilson Jan 26 '15 at 0:16
  • @ Trevor - You and I don't know that the accused did something wrong. That's why I won't tell the OP to make an open accusation (without proof) that could have legal repercussions. – Inquisitive Jan 26 '15 at 0:20
  • 1
    I think you're missing my point. What does it matter to the OP what you and I know? We are advising OP to make a decision based on what OP knows. And I don't see the point in us questioning whether OP is telling the truth. – Trevor Wilson Jan 26 '15 at 0:26
  • 10
    I would not use the word "open" to describe academic hiring deliberations: in fact they are usually quite confidential. And the way these things work is that faculty say things that cause candidates not to get hired: hundreds of candidates, every time. Also the OP is reporting to her colleagues, not her boss: she is empowered here. Nevertheless I would not bring up the scientific misconduct without clear evidence: rationally speaking, without that, how can the OP be confident that it's true? There are other, better ways for the OP to express her lack of enthusiasm in the candidate. – Pete L. Clark Jan 26 '15 at 0:30
-12

The first question I would put is: 1. He is smart/competent enough for this position? 2. Is he a hardworker who will contribute?

Come on man, everybody makes mistakes. Just get over it and make sure it does not happen in the future.

  • 18
    And how does one "make sure it does not happen in the future"? By hiring him? – Joel Reyes Noche Jan 26 '15 at 10:00
  • 3
    There are almost certainly other candidates for the position who meet the minimum bar of competency. Some of them have also reached the present stage of their career without engaging in misconduct. – Michael Hoffman Jan 27 '15 at 1:14
  • 1
    That kind of attitude doesn't belong in academia. A researcher must be held to very high standards of ethics. Falsified results can cause more harm than you care to imagine. – pratik_m Feb 3 '15 at 5:19

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.