In the "Ethics in Science" course I regularly teach,students spend a good bit of time honing their ethicaldecision-making skills by writing responses to case studies. (A recent post lays out the basic strategy we take in approaching these cases.)Over the span of the semester, my students' responses to thecases give me pretty good data about the development of theirethical decision-making. From time to time, they also advance claims that make me say,"Hmmm …" Here's one such claim, recently asserted in response to acase in which the protagonist, a scientist serving on a studysection for the NIH (i.e., a committee that ranks the merit ofgrant proposals submitted to the NIH for funding), has to make adecision about how to respond when she detects plagiarism in aproposal: The main purpose of the NIH is to ensure that projects with meritget funded, not to punish scientists for plagiarism. Based on this assertion, the student argued that it wasn'tclear that the study section member had to make an official report to the NIH about the plagiarism. I think the claim is interesting, though I think maybe we would dowell to unpack it a little. |
What, for instance, counts as a project with merit ? Is it enough that the proposed research would, if successful,contribute a new piece of knowledge to our shared body ofscientific knowledge? Does the anticipated knowledge that theresearch would generate need to be important , and if so, according to what metric? (Clearly applicable to apressing problem? Advancing our basic understanding of some part ofour world? Surprising? Resolving an ongoing scientific debate?)Does the proposal need to convey evidence that the proposers have agood chance at being successful in conducting the research (becausethey have the scientific skills, the institutional resources,etc.)? Does plagiarism count as evidence against merit here? Perhaps we answer this question differently if we think what shouldbe evaluated is the proposal rather than the proposer. Maybe theproposed research is well-designed, likely to work, and likely tomake an important contribution to knowledge in the field —even if the proposer is judged lacking in scholarly integrity(because she seems not to know how properly to cite the words orideas of others, or not to care to do so if she knows how). But, one of the expectations of federal funders like the NIH isthat scientists whose research is funded will write up the resultsand share them in the scientific literature. Among other things,this means that one of the scientific skills that a proposer willneed to see a project through to completion (including publishingthe results) successfully is the ability to write without running afoul of basic standards ofhonest scholarship . A paper which communicates important results while alsocommitting plagiarism will not bring glory to the NIH for fundingthe researcher.
More broadly, the fact that something (like detecting or punishingplagiarism) is not a primary goal does not mean it is not a goalthat might support the primary goal. To the extent that certainkinds of behavior in proposing research might mark a scientist as abad risk to carry out research responsibly, it strikes me asentirely appropriate for funding agencies to flag those behaviorswhen they see them — and also to share that information withother funding agencies. As well, to the extent that an agency like the NIH might punish ascientist for plagiarism, the kind of punishment it imposes isgenerally barring that scientist from eligibility for funding for afinite number of years. In other words, the punishment amounts to"You don't get our money, and you don't get toask us for money again for the next N years." To me, this punishment doesn't look likeit's disproportional, and it doesn't look like imposingit on a plagiarist grant proposer diverges wildly from the maingoal of ensuring that projects with merit get funded.
But, as always, I'm interested in what you all think aboutit.
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