administrators

Essay on how the LaCour scandal exposes weaknesses in research training and peer review

Five years ago, I took a long walk in Ireland with my husband, and when we got back, there were reports of several research scandals in which academic reputations were ruined by what appeared to be data falsification or at least substantial sloppiness. I wrote about it -- claiming, as I often do, that enforced data sharing would at least ensure that researchers tidied up their documentation.

A few weeks ago, I took another long walk in Ireland with my husband, and this time the news was filled with Ireland’s public referendum legalizing same-sex marriage and another research scandal, this one involving research about the possibility that face-to-face voter canvassing by persons identified as gay can change opinions about the rights of the LGBT community. I guess I need to be more careful about my travel plans, at least when they involve Ireland.

This time I am less sanguine about the idea that simply enforcing data sharing can improve the research process enough that sloppiness and outright fraud will be well policed. The most recent story involves a young Ph.D. student, Michael J. LaCour, who made up facts about the research process -- such as who funded it, how incentives were paid out, whether the embedded experiments were registered with a centralized registry and perhaps even which survey firm conducted the study.

The scandal began, as they often do, when someone wanted to replicate the research, and the researcher did not share all of the data. The student, in fact, despite the very sound advice of his senior co-author, had not deposited all the data with my former employer the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) so that the full data file could both be found and shared. Once thwarted and confused, of course, the research team that wanted to replicate his research started pulling at the loose thread and unraveled a whole skein of lies and exaggerations. I bet Michael LaCour now profoundly wishes he had paid closer and more careful heed to the advice of his mentor -- because ICPSR, in fact, could have coaxed him into the truth simply by the act of scrutiny and documentation; instead he chose a self-archiving method that allowed him to upload what he wished.

The story of LaCour should bolster my cherished premise that full data sharing will reduce the amount of malfeasance, right? Is it possible to still be naïve in your early 50s? I am afraid so. After another five years of being head down and hip deep in data collection and file preparation, I am willing to admit that either encouraging or forcing data sharing among researchers just is not enough. These scandals result from deeper problems with our training and review of the research process. The scandals almost always erupt when someone starts to question the data used to answer a substantive question -- and then the answer to the substantive question is viewed with suspicion. The inability to replicate, or even get close, opens the door to all types of scrutiny. Mishandling data or data collection is like Al Capone not paying his taxes -- it provides an entrée for our academic Eliot Ness to bring home the investigation.

My claims about the inadequacy of research training and the peer-review process will likely raise howls of protest -- what about all of the graduate-level methods courses, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the peer-review process required for grants and publications? Yes, all of these checks and balances, in principle, ensure ethical, high-quality research. But they do not, in fact, in any of the disciplines I am familiar with. Graduate-level methods classes in the social sciences -- and I have taught more than a few -- carry a heavy burden requiring both an omnibus survey of data collection methods, research ethics and often a smattering of statistical methods. The section on research ethics usually only focuses on how to deal with human subjects, not on how to handle the data we collect from them. Even a two-course sequence will never get you much beyond what I always think of as the research equivalent of “happily ever after” data collection. No one tells you how to stay married to your Prince Charming nor how to adequately and ethically prepare data files for sharing.

What of the IRB and peer review -- don’t they represent the bulwark against sloppiness and malfeasance? Not really -- as both do not have the explicit purpose of policing the research process generally. The purpose of the IRB is, in fact, the protection of human subjects -- that is, ensuring that all data collection is ethical. This may or may not ensure that the data collection is well documented, accurate and scrupulously transparent, as the protection of human subjects requires looking carefully at informed consent, for instance, but not necessarily data documentation.

Unfortunately, peer review is even more narrowly focused, except when a reviewer pulls hard at a methodological thread. Journal articles and grant applications never allow for the careful description of the methods and procedures because of substantial space constraints. In the past, co-authors and fellow review panel members have rightly scolded me for my overweening and tedious attention to the details of the research process. Peer review focuses primarily on substance and research quality because it must -- we are meant to trust that our colleagues are well trained, careful, transparent and accurate, without a lot of detail about how they execute these traits. I am not entirely sure that trust is warranted -- thus, peer review also fails to ensure that the research process is as it should be.

On our walk in Ireland, my husband and I climbed Croagh Patrick, the mountain on top of which St. Patrick spent 40 days fasting in 441 AD. It is a religious pilgrimage for many Irish Catholics -- for us, it was the challenge of going straight uphill on loose slate for two hours. Croagh Patrick is famous for its miserable weather, and our walk was no exception -- 50-mile-an-hour winds, driving rain and dense fog. As my husband is fond of saying, St. Patrick’s religious visions on the top of the mountain can likely be attributed to hypothermia and the fact that he could not find his way down.

As I crawled my way up the mountain of loose, wet stone, in addition to cursing my husband, who is descended from a long line of spirited Irish men and women, I thought about the value of careful and thorough preparation. My husband, ever the Eagle Scout, always ensures that we are thoroughly prepared and carefully equipped for every eventuality -- thus, I only got soaked to the skin in the last 20 minutes instead of the first two hours, and we made it both up and down the mountain despite being the far side of 50 years old. It strikes me that the research process is indeed like climbing Croagh Patrick -- preparation and careful attention to detail are an absolute must. The research community must find better ways to nurture and encourage these skills rather than spend time picking over the bones of those who have fallen off the trail.

Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Felicia B. LeClere is a senior fellow with NORC at the University of Chicago, where she works as research coordinator on multiple projects. She has 20 years of experience in survey design and practice, with particular interest in data dissemination and the support of scientific research through the development of scientific infrastructure.

Debate over Confederate symbols grows as Citadel seeks to move its flag

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Citadel seeks to move its flag; 3 statues vandalized amid debate at UT Austin; U of Mississippi chancellor calls for state flag to change.

UCLA Police Arrest Sean (Diddy) Combs

Police officers at the University of California at Los Angeles on Monday arrested Sean Combs, the music star widely known as Diddy, on three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of making terrorist threats and one count of battery. The weapon referenced was a kettlebell. The university said the arrest took place at the Acosta Athletic Training Complex, where members of the football team work out. Justin Combs, son of Sean Combs, is a member of the UCLA football team. ESPN and others reported that Sean Combs attacked a conditioning coach, Sal Alosi. Combs posted bail and has not commented.

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Columbia Will Divest From Private Prison Companies

Columbia University's board voted Monday to divest its endowment from private prison companies, CNN reported. Columbia may be the first American college or university to adopt such a policy. Student and faculty groups have been urging the shift. Columbia has in the past invested in two such companies, although there have been reports that holdings in one company were sold prior to Monday's vote. A statement from the university to CNN said: “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum. The decision follows… thoughtful analysis and deliberation by our faculty, students and alumni.”

Monks Sue Benedictine U in Governance Dispute

The monks who founded Benedictine University, in Illinois, have sued the institution, saying that it is ignoring their authority, The Chicago Tribune reported. The university issued a statement Monday saying that some bylaw clarification may be needed, but denying wrongdoing. The dispute appears to involve the appointment of Michael Brophy as the university's next president. The monks say that the university bylaws give them the right to approve the new president, and that the university board ignored this. They are also requesting that they be able to interview three finalists.

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Citing trademark infringement, one university sues another for having the same name

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One Mount St. Mary's sues another, citing trademark issues as institutions on opposite coasts compete for students -- and status -- online.

CFPB Letter on Student Debt Relief Scams

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) on Monday wrote to three web search engines -- Google, Bing and Yahoo -- to ask the companies to work with federal and state authorities to prevent "student debt relief scammers" from targeting distressed borrowers.

"The CFPB has seen an increase in the number of companies and websites requiring large up-front fees to help borrowers enroll in a plan that can be done for free," according to the CFPB. "While we have warned consumers about these scams, we are concerned that unscrupulous companies may be using aggressive advertising through search products to lure distressed borrowers."

State and federal agencies have pursued several of the debt relief outfits for allegedly illegal and harmful actions, the letter said. And the CFPB said some of those companies may be violating the search engine hosts' policies against misrepresentation in advertisements.

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Essay defends the idea that colleges have climbing walls and other recreational facilities

One of the most popular critiques of higher education is that climbing walls and recreation centers are the sources of all financial problems and destructive student-coddling behaviors. Armed with outrage and anecdote, sometimes spiced with snark but little real information or context, ostensibly well-intentioned commentators have made an industry out of bashing these facilities.

I confess that, when it came to recreation centers, I was once a card-carrying member of the arched-eyebrow club. In my former position as budget director and later vice chancellor for finance for the Ohio Board of Regents, I had limited authority over campus issuance of new debt for construction. “Tut, tut, tut,” I used to think. “How could the trustees and administrators be so extravagant as to spend money on these luxurious student facilities? Why aren't running, cycling and walking on outdoor paths good enough? Why can't students do calisthenics in their dorm rooms?” (The tuts are added for dramatic effect. I never actually thought these words.)

Fortunately for the campuses and students in public institutions in Ohio, my opinion had little effect on these decisions. In terms of process, the institutions were, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion. The administrations would generally seek and receive approval from students, either through an actual referendum or through student government. Students would usually approve the projects and, most importantly, the new fees associated with them.

At the University of Cincinnati, students approved the immediate imposition of new fees for a recreation center they would never use -- due to the construction schedule -- arguing that previous generations of students had supported existing, older facilities, and that the current cohort of students were in debt for these past sacrifices and investments. The staff of the Board of Regents would review the financial viability of the project, making sure that operations and debt could be financed with the plan submitted by the campus.

I was on a road in Athens -- Ohio, not Damascus -- when I got knocked off of my proverbial ass, discovered the value of these centers and changed my opinion 180 degrees. I visited the Ping Center at Ohio University on a Saturday night. What I discovered amazed me. I found the 168,000-square-foot recreation center filled with hundreds of students, faculty and staff, exercising, competing in recreational and intramural sports, socializing, doing homework in the juice bar, and generally having productive shared experiences in a safe, comfortable and challenging environment.

At a time when binge drinking and obesity are two of the most serious health issues faced by college students, and faculty-student interactions are few and far between, I was impressed with the level and type of unstructured, positive activity I witnessed among students and faculty that night. I assume that recreation centers at other institutions serve similar purposes. In addition, at urban campuses, these centers serve as a magnet on weekends and off hours that bring people, life and income to areas that otherwise would be dark and dead. In a small way, they help keep the city alive.

For someone who is still proud of his education in the liberal arts, it took me a long time to come to appreciate the words of the Roman poet Juvenal: “Mens sana in corpore sano.

You can look it up on your smartphone, while you're on your stationary bike, at your campus recreation center.

Richard Petrick is the retired vice chancellor for finance of the Ohio Board of Regents.

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Essay on mistakes that derail good candidates from becoming college administrators

Lucy Leske considers the errors that she sees derail candidacies of good people for leadership jobs in higher ed.

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Clinton on Veterans and the 90/10 Rule

Hillary Clinton last week said as president she would seek to crack down on the for-profit college sector's aggressive recruitment of military veterans, the Associated Press reported. The former U.S. secretary of state and current candidate for the Democratic nomination for president said she would push to change the so-called 90/10 rule, which prevents for-profits from receiving more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal sources. Under current regulations, veterans' educational benefits like the Post-9/11 GI Bill do not count toward that 90 percent limit. Clinton said she would seek to eliminate this "loophole," as some of her Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Senate have sought to do several times before, unsuccessfully.

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