Scholars and Scandal

When allegations of research misconduct -- both true and “truthy” -- can spread more quickly than ever, should academe respond slowly and deliberately?
April 6, 2011

In Nov. 2009, the unauthorized release of 1,000 e-mails between British and American climate scientists soon metastasized into a media (and, many say, manufactured) event. By seizing on two turns of phrase in one e-mail -- that a “trick” should be used to “hide the decline” in a graph used in a 1999 World Meteorological Organization report -- global warming skeptics painted a picture, largely successfully in some precincts of public opinion, of climate scientists as biased and the underlying science of global warming as in doubt.

Three separate inquiries into what became known as “Climategate” analyzed the allegations and -- with some caveats about the scientists' openness and transparency in how they presented data -- backed the researchers' representations and found nothing to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that climate change is real, driven largely by human activity and a matter of urgent concern. “We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit,” wrote the authors of a report that examined whether the unit performed its research with integrity. It was chaired by Lord Ron Oxburgh, a geologist, former chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defense in Britain and a non-executive chairman of Shell. “Rather,” they continued, “we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganized researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.”

The intense public attention that swirled around these researchers gave rise to an important lesson, according to the authors of a report produced by a panel chaired by Sir Muir Russell, former principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Glasgow and now the chair of Scotland's Judicial Appointments Board. That lesson has resonated well beyond climate science and into other disciplines. It is a lesson about the changed landscape in which scientists -- and, by extension, all scholars -- now operate.

“One of the most obvious features of the climate change debate is the influence of the blogosphere,” wrote Russell's panel. “This provides an opportunity for unmoderated comment to stand alongside peer reviewed publications; for presentations or lectures at learned conferences to be challenged without inhibition; and for highly personalized critiques of individuals and their work to be promulgated without hindrance. This is a fact of life, and it would be foolish to challenge its existence.”

This environment, the panel noted, should prod scientists to be more open with their data and to communicate their work in more accessible ways. “A failure to recognize this and to act appropriately can lead to immense reputational damage by feeding allegations of cover up,” Russell's panel continued. “Being part of a like-minded group may provide no defense. Like it or not, this indicates a transformation in the way science has to be conducted in this century.”

It is not clear that the panel's urgings have truly been heeded by scholars. And the conditions that gave rise to Climategate are still very much in play; some see similar dynamics in the open records request for the e-mails of a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has been critical of the Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's policies on public employee unions (those supportive of the request say it is meant to determine whether the professor breached laws barring public employees from politicking using public resources). Many of the same issues also have surfaced in the demand by Virginia's Attorney General for documents related to the research of a former University of Virginia climate scientist (the Attorney General says his goal is to provide oversight of a state institution). A state judge blocked an earlier request, and the scientist's current employer, Pennsylvania State University, cleared the scientist of any scientific misconduct.

But the panel's warnings raise a host of questions: What is the best course of action when scholars' motives and research are attacked? How quickly should they respond? Who should vet such allegations -- universities, disciplinary societies, or some other entity? If scholars move too hastily, do the risks of getting it wrong (or of being later disproven) outweigh the damage of letting allegations fester without rebuttal?

As Russell's panel suggested, the means of argument and debate, the treatment of uncertainty and the appearance of authority differ greatly between the blogosphere and academe. The blogosphere has many virtues: it is egalitarian, democratic, decentralized and quick. But, some scholars note with dismay, it also allows anyone with an Internet connection to publish his or her views and to find a platform to cast doubt on others, often without being held accountable.

In addition, some worry that the current media environment has exacerbated partisanship; people can simply pick and choose among sources of information that reinforce their existing world view. The web can advance, for lack of a better word, “truthiness,” the term used most famously by the comic pundit Stephen Colbert. In 2006, the American Dialect Society named it the word of the year and supplied a definition: "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."

On the other hand, academic research, at least ideally, is supposed to pursue truth instead of truthiness. It is conducted methodically, with attention to context and scholarly standards, and is at its best when held accountable through such vehicles as peer review. But it also can be slow-moving and, to the uninitiated, opaque.

In the case of Climategate, truthiness seems to have prevailed. Forty-seven percent of Americans polled soon after the story broke in the mainstream media said that news coverage of the e-mails had made them either somewhat (18 percent) or much more (29 percent) certain that global warming was not happening, according to a working paper by Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist and the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (an updated version is due to appear in an upcoming issue of American Behavioral Scientist).

He and his fellow researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,001 adults between Dec. 24, 2009, and Jan. 3, 2010 -- nearly two months after the scientists' e-mails were first posted online and about a month after the story became widely known. More than half, or 53 percent of respondents, said that the stories had caused them have less trust in climate scientists.

Leiserowitz said recently via e-mail that it is unclear how long the damage has lasted, though he and his colleagues are about to do another survey. Many scientists felt stung by the episode, to be sure. But the issue has faded from memory for all but the most skeptical members of the general public, Leiserowitz said, with some who were on the fence indicating that their opinions had hardened. “Probably some people who were formerly doubtful became dismissive because of Climategate,” he said. “It will be hard to win back their trust."

The University of East Anglia, where the Climatic Research Unit is housed, waited too long to respond once the e-mails were released, Leiserowitz added. In those weeks, the story gained traction and was firmly framed by climate skeptics. "We now live in a 24/7 news cycle -- the story went through multiple iterations before they said anything," he said. "The community was caught flat-footed."

Something, then, should be done to better respond. But what?

Typically, universities -- which have legal departments, review boards and other resources (as well as ultimate responsibility for federal grants, if the research funded by such sources is implicated) -- are best equipped to handle allegations of research misconduct or unethical behavior, said Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But such processes also tend to be far more clearly codified for the physical and natural sciences than for social science or the humanities, say many observers.

These inquiries can take several months to properly gear up, and many more to render findings. For example, Harvard University seized the hard drives of Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology and human evolutionary biology, in order to investigate suspected research misconduct. That probe took three years to determine that Hauser had committed eight instances of scientific misconduct. Harvard also retracted or corrected three of Hauser's scholarly publications and indicated that he would be sanctioned but allowed to teach again after a year. After word first leaked of Hauser's punishment, scholars pressed Harvard to give a more detailed account of exactly what parts of his published research had been found wanting.

Frankel wondered whether methodical time frames were still practical in the current information environment. “To some extent, it changes the rules of the game,” he said of the blogosphere. And it is not yet evident, he said, that universities or disciplinary societies have developed processes or mechanisms to respond to rapidly proliferating, diverse and unfamiliar sources of information from which allegations spring forth.

“This is a different world from even 10 years ago,” said Frankel. “Moving with all deliberate speed is not going to be fast enough in the 21st century.”

But Is Speed Always Best?

Claims of fraud, fabrication and ethical breaches in research in the social sciences and the humanities rarely tend to surface as publicly or as explosively as they did in Climategate (claims of plagiarism are another matter). But such controversies garner great attention when they do occur. In 2000, the journalist Patrick Tierney published a book, Darkness in El Dorado (which was also excerpted in the New Yorker), in which he claimed that the indigenous Yanomami people of South America had been greatly harmed by the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, biosocial professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and by James V. Neel, who before his death was a physician and geneticist at the University of Michigan.

In contrast to Climategate, in which scholars were caught unawares, the El Dorado controversy was anticipated, if not perhaps exacerbated, by those within the discipline. “We write to inform you of an impending scandal that will affect the American anthropological profession as a whole in the eyes of the public, and arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the association,” Leslie E. Sponsel and Terence Turner, emeritus professor and professor of anthropology, respectively, at the University of Hawaii and at Cornell University, wrote in a memo to the president and president-elect of the association, and to the heads of four units within the American Anthropological Association. “In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology.”

Turner and Sponsel had read galleys of Tierney's book and urged the association to begin planning a response before it was released, including taking “appropriate redressive actions” on some of Tierney's claims. They called for a public airing of the scandal at the association's next annual meeting, and to involve several subcommittees of the AAA, including those dealing with human rights, ethics and Latin America. “Our point is simply that the time [to] start is now,” they wrote.

The AAA took on the task of conducting an inquiry into Tierney's claims -- to the detriment of that association, said Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. “The AAA behaved as if it was a company and it was doing damage control,” said Dreger, whose article, “Darkness's Descent on the American Anthropological Association,” appeared in the February issue of Human Nature. The article amplifies a presentation she made to the association in 2009 and will be covered in a book she is writing on scientific controversies in the Internet age.

The El Dorado controversy has proven to be enduring, at least among some factions of anthropologists. Each side accuses the other of cherry-picking certain facts while ignoring others. And each side draws from the affair its own set of lessons -- about ethics, the dangers of ideology trumping scholarship, and many other considerations. (Those interested in plumbing the depths of the controversy and following the volleys of argument and counterpoint can dive into a website maintained by Douglas W. Hume, assistant professor of anthropology at Northern Kentucky University.)

El Dorado also raises questions, not just about the speed with which scholars should respond, but also about who should be the one to investigate allegations of misconduct -- and how such allegations are aired in the first place.

Sponsel and Turner have said that their letter was meant only for the heads of the AAA and its relevant committees -- and that it was distributed widely through the Internet without their consent. “We never intended or anticipated that our letter would go any further than these six individuals,” they wrote in a letter to Nancy Cantor, who was then provost at Michigan and led a panel that investigated some of the claims. “Once someone leaked our letter into cyberspace,” they continued, “it was quickly out of control.”

At the same time, Sponsel stands by the original purpose of the memo, though he said he would have tempered some of its language and marked it "confidential." He says its purpose was to alert the AAA to an impending public relations catastrophe and ask the association to investigate. “We did not first take time to scrutinize everything that Tierney wrote,” he wrote in a response to Dreger's work, “but asked the AAA to do so, given their far greater resources.”

The blogosphere was not to blame in this case, of course. The New Yorker, which is known for its scrupulous fact-checking, no doubt lent gravitas to Tierney's claims. The structural changes to the media that have taken place since Tierney's piece was published 11 years ago -- fewer reporters and editors, and wider and more immediate dissemination -- make it more likely that sensational or spurious allegations will travel very far, very fast.

While universities may be well-equipped to pick through the sorts of issues that tend to come their way -- typically allegations of fraud, fabrication and plagiarism -- it is unclear how more ambiguous breaches of disciplinary ethics, like many of those taken up by the AAA, can best be investigated. Ethical standards tend to be unique to each field of study and more nuanced than, say, determining whether plagiarism occurred. While disciplinary societies would seem to be the standard-bearers of ethical practice, it is not clear that they have the resources or temperament to rule on them.

In the case of El Dorado, Dreger is not the only critic to say that the AAA mishandled the controversy by treating it, chiefly, as a public relations problem. “They were more concerned with protecting the discipline’s image than with dealing directly with the issues Tierney had raised,” Robert Borofsky, professor of anthropology at Hawaii Pacific University, wrote in his book, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Might Learn From It.

“The AAA can’t do ethical evaluations because it will upset the membership,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “They have an investment in keeping members. Speaking truth to power doesn’t fit that agenda.” The AAA declined to comment, but said through a spokeswoman that it is "still very interested in the topic of how associations move forward after controversial issues."

Nonetheless, Borofsky said the AAA was justified in deciding to look into Tierney's claims. “I don’t think they had a choice not to get involved,” he said. “The publicity was so momentous and so broad and pervasive, they had to.” He also thought the task force's report was ultimately credible -- and that the later vote by members to rescind acceptance of the report was a case in which the AAA got “unfairly banged down.”

Dreger, on the other hand, faulted the AAA for taking the charges seriously when some, such as Jane Hill, the head of the association's task force, privately called the book "a piece of sleaze," and some of its most explosive claims had been rebutted.

"One must wonder what scholar will want to belong to a professional organization which, rather than protecting her right to be fairly represented in the press, launches an investigation into her life’s work," Dreger wrote. "I can’t imagine how any scholar now feels safe at the hands of the AAA, except insofar as the voting membership seems to have some sense of fair play."

Sponsel, who urged the AAA look into the allegations, also was critical of the association's final product. “Tierney's book was unprecedented in its multitude of diverse allegations,” he wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “(It) deserved a far more thorough and competent investigation than it received from the AAA or any other organization and from Chagnon's defenders.”

Disciplinary Society As Moral Authority

If the El Dorado controversy suggests the perils of disciplinary societies deciding to look into allegations of misconduct, is there any role for them to play at all? A controversy that arose in another field at around the same time offers a different road map.

Michael Bellesiles's 2000 book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, garnered high praise -- and the prestigious Bancroft Prize -- as well as virulent criticism from, among others, the National Rifle Association. His provocative thesis was that gun ownership in Colonial America was actually far less common than typically assumed. If true, his argument would seem to undermine the notion that the prevailing culture of gun ownership during the time of the Founding Fathers would tend to bolster an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment.

Historians were disquieted by the fervor of the criticism the book inspired. Though they supported critical evaluation of scholarship, the members of the elected council of the American Historical Association passed a resolution decrying the personal attacks and harassment of Bellesiles as “inappropriate and damaging to a tradition of free exchange of ideas.”

But questions arose about Bellesiles's scholarly methods, and some of those questions turned out to be well-founded. Many wondered how the Emory University historian had reached the conclusions he did based on his analyses of probate and militia records. An investigation carried out on behalf of Emory by a panel of three distinguished historians rendered its report in 2002: “The best that can be said of his work with the probate and militia records is that he is guilty of unprofessional and misleading work. Every aspect of his work in the probate records is deeply flawed,” the historians wrote. Finding evidence of falsification on a key table of data that Bellesiles compiled, the panel of historians wrote that “his scholarly integrity is seriously in question.”

The Bancroft was revoked, though some of Bellesiles's supporters say that the sloppiness of his record-keeping and other flaws do not invalidate his entire argument. But, more broadly, questions remain about how such scandals can best be handled by scholars and their societies.

To the current executive director of the AHA, Jim Grossman, it is far from clear that professional associations are best-suited for such investigations. In fact, the AHA in 2003 stopped hearing complaints about allegations of misconduct because such probes proved time-consuming, and -- due to confidentiality considerations that required the association to keep quiet about their findings -- they seemed to have little public impact. “I think that what professional associations are the appropriate venue for is establishing the standards,” said Grossman.

Those standards proved useful to the panel of historians judging the Bellesiles allegations on behalf of Emory. The historians had been asked by Emory to determine unanswerable questions, such as whether Bellesiles had intentionally falsified data. They also said that Emory's procedures were not entirely adequate in guiding their inquiry, “since it seems basically designed for the investigation of alleged misconduct in the life and physical sciences,” they wrote. So they relied on AHA standards as a kind of moral authority.

“This was the service that the AHA provided to the profession,” Grossman said.

The process of scholarship itself serves as another sort of bulwark -- though it is more by force of example -- against both valid and false allegations, said Tony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University and president of the AHA. “We’re modeling honest, firsthand inquiry,” Grafton wrote in January. “That austere, principled quest for knowledge matters: matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before.”

Grafton agreed that disciplinary societies would not be well served adjudicating claims, saying that what seems clear on the outside is murkier once you delve in. But he also concurred that some kind of scholarly response is needed in a world of accelerating information. He hoped that civic-minded scholars would wade into controversies to debunk falsehoods. “You can’t legislate this, but you depend on people to have sharp eyes and notice things,” he said, citing as an example Carol Sheriff, a history professor at the College of William and Mary who debunked a claim published in a Virginia fourth-grade textbook that thousands of black soldiers fought during the Civil War for the Confederacy.

“[We] want to encourage historians to engage themselves in communities -- state and local," said Grafton. "There's a million ways of reaching the public.”

Whose Job Is It?

Recently, two research fellows at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni proposed still another route for scholars to police ethical breaches. While Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black advocated in Inside Higher Ed for disciplinary societies and others to play a role in such matters, the majority of their argument centered on the American Association of University Professors reviving what is known as “Committee B,” which would police abuses of academic standards.

“Like Committee A [which investigates alleged breaches of academic freedom], Committee B should investigate cases, issue statements, and set standards,” O'Connor and Black wrote. “It should censure institutions that don’t enforce those standards -- and, when appropriate, professors who violate them.”

But even some longstanding advocates for Committee B acknowledge that such a body might not offer an effective remedy. “I'm not sure there is any optimal channel,” said one such advocate, Robert M. O’Neil, the former president of the University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin who is serving his third term as the general counsel for the AAUP. “It’s difficult to formalize and apply standards in the realm of ethics.”

He added that, for most people in academe, reestablishing Committee B may not be a terribly high priority, “in part because the transgressions are likely to be infrequent, highly fact-intensive and therefore not readily capable of comprehensive resolution under a standard of code of ethics.”

Stanley N. Katz, Lecturer with the rank of Professor and director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, said that the web can be harnessed in service to scholarship: scholars linked to each other via the web might deploy to respond quickly to emerging controversies. The larger risk of the current media environment, he said, is the weakening or destruction of academe's best tool: peer review. “If everyone is a publisher, that’s a disaster,” he said. “That’s a real threat.”

Also troubling, he said, is the changing relationship of scholars to their institutions. The free market ethos that is becoming more prevalent in higher education has encouraged individual professors to see themselves as entrepreneurs, not as members of an institution.

“Some say the primary obligation is shifting from the institution to the discipline,” said Katz. “It’s every man on his own and every woman on her own. It’s in nobody’s corporate interest to police activity.”


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