5. Blowing the whistle on dishonesty and research fraud

Case
5.1: Blowing the whistle on improper referencing practice
5.2: A victim of whistle-blowing
5.3: Supervisor responsibility and criteria for plagiarism

Case 5.1: Blowing the whistle on improper referencing practice
Professor Ugelstad created particle spheres, which represented a major breakthrough in cancer research. A US professor cited Ugelstad in his first two articles on this subject, and subsequently cited himself.

Questions: Why is this problematic, and how can the problem be handled? Write to the editor; duty to report this; duty to check sources?

General comment: This case concerns problems related to improper use of references. The important question, however, is why it is improper to cite only oneself in later publications (even though the source was previously cited in earlier publications). Two obvious reasons: The source should be credited, and traceability is important for effective research – it should be easy for other researchers to find relevant material.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: This is subject to both Norwegian and international legislation on intellectual property, see Åndverksloven [the Norwegian Copyright Act] and the Berne Convention. The Copyright Act emphasizes so-called moral rights — that is, the right to be cited. For example, see Section 3 Subsection 1: "Both when copies of a literary, scientific or artistic work are produced, and when it is made available to the public, the author is entitled to have his name stated in the manner required by proper usage."

The Vancouver Group guidelines are also important in this case - see the discussion by the National Committees for Research Ethics in Norway. Direct link to the guidelines.

From Håndbok for god forskningsetikk [Manual for ethical practice in research], The University of Oslo (UiO).

Useful links that provide information about various systems of referencing:

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Case 5.2: A victim of whistle-blowing
Staff at a unit for petroleum research felt that the head of the unit should leave because he had been accused of corruption. The head was removed from the position and transferred to a new job. Investigation however showed that the head had not done anything wrong.

Questions: Who is responsible: the employees, the board or the head of the unit? What can be done when complaints are dismissed after the case has been dealt with at top level through official channels?

General comment: This case involves a major and complex problem, i.e. whistle-blowing. At both the national and the international level, there is currently a strong focus on measures to safeguard both the whistle-blower and the person accused of misconduct. In this case, it was particularly serious that a person wrongfully ended up as a victim. This raises a number of ethical questions to ponder. What happens when the media prejudge the situation, and turns out that what appears in the newspapers is not true? Should somebody who has wrongfully become a victim of whistle-blowing defend themselves in the media when they know that this will subject the institution to a new round of negative publicity?

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: How can one ensure that whistle-blowing is based on the right motive: To contribute to greater integrity in research? In this case, it appears that other motives may have prevailed. What does it take to be regarded as a whistle-blower? And what happens when the "whistle-blowers" have their own motives? What consequences should there be for a whistle-blower if he or she acts on an incorrect or dishonest basis?

Comment 2: There are strong indications that the accusations may not have been investigated sufficiently — which both the head and the board should have done. After such accusations, it cannot be easy to come back to the workplace. And I am not sure what kind of reception there should have been, in that case.

Comment 3: Who is responsible depends on the rules of procedure for the Board of Directors and authorizations. In relation to whistle-blowing, it is important to have routines specifying who should be notified in such cases. This will no doubt become clearer when NTNU's own guidelines for whistle-blowing appear.

Comment 4: This looks like a case of "innocent until proved guilty"? Perhaps the head could have asked for legal assistance from his or her union? The basis on which the transfer took place is not clear. If the unit for petroleum research forms part of NTNU, the Norwegian Working Environment Act [Arbeidsmiljøloven] is relevant? This also governs the head's access to appeal against decisions about suspension, disciplinary measures, dismissal, etc. (For an English translation of the Working Environment Act in PDF format, see the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority’s website.)

Useful links:

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Case 5.3: Supervisor responsibility and criteria for plagiarism
A thesis was assessed as somewhere between plagiarism, poor workmanship, and poor referencing practice. The assessment committee raised the question of what the faculty would do. The committee was referred to the guidelines and had to issue recommendations. If it was poor workmanship it would not be approved, but if it was regarded as plagiarism, it would be rejected as fraud. The faculty raised the question of the supervisor's role here.

Questions: Is this only a problem of an absent supervisor? What about different standards in different academic cultures?

General comment: This case concerns several dilemmas, including different standards for distinguishing between plagiarism and poor workmanship. We know that there are wide international variations, but norms also differ depending on the discipline. There is great divergence with respect to the supervisor's role during the process of the thesis work. The only thing that is completely clear in this case is that the communication along the way has been far too poor/closed. One must however be familiar with the specific case to determine how blame and responsibility should be allocated.

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: This is primarily the responsibility of the supervisor, who should have had enough academic competence to assess at an earlier stage of the work whether plagiarism was involved.

Comment 2: The faculty, department, and/or supervisor could have advised the candidate during the programme of study to become familiar with referencing and criticism of sources/references to sources, etc. There are varying views about how this should be done and about the requirements that can be set, both in different disciplines and in different cultures/countries (Norway versus China, for example). But shouldn't the supervisor have seen from the text draft in progress that this was headed in the wrong direction?

At the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, UMB, a contract has been drawn up (in Norwegian) to reduce problems associated with plagiarism. (doc)

Link to interesting article about plagiarism (in Norwegian) in Tidsskrift for den norske lægeforening [the journal of the Norwegian Medical Association].

In Part B of the PhD contract (doc), § 4 and 5 the following details about the information requirement are included:

§ 4 Obligation to report on progress and provide relevant information
The candidate and the supervisor(s) undertake to keep one another informed on an ongoing basis about all matters of significance for supervision. The parties undertake to actively follow up any matters which could lead to supervision not functioning as is agreed in § 5 below.

§ 5 Obligations of the supervisor and the candidate in connection with supervision
In addition to what is stipulated in the Regulations, the supervisor must:

  • offer advice on formulating and limiting areas for study and research
  • discuss and assess hypotheses and methodology
  • provide assistance in finding specialist literature and data sources (libraries, archives, etc)
  • discuss the form of presentation and work on the chosen research topic (outline, linguistic form, documentation, etc)
  • help to introduce the candidate into relevant scientific groups and bodies, discuss results and their interpretation
  • provide the candidate with guidance in ethical principles for research in connection with the thesis

The doctoral candidate must:

  • submit reports or drafts of parts of the thesis to the supervisor. Parts of the thesis may be presented in connection with seminars
  • comply with ethical research principles in that disciplinary field