PhD Ethics?
October 30, 2009 6:17 AM   Subscribe

What are some ethics considerations around a PhD dissertation? And should I do anything about a former colleague who I think violated them?

A guy I used to work with was recently awarded a PhD in a social science from a one of the universities in a big east coast state's public university system.

I admit I never liked the guy - sketchy around young women and not very good at his job - and I was happy when he was not exactly fired but it was suggested that he find another place to work. And he landed a good job in the private sector.

I have two problems with his PhD. First, that at least two of the three people on his committee, including his advisor, were people to whom he has for years been directing pretty lucrative US government consulting contracts. Isn't there some kind of conflict of interest clause in PhD committees? Like you can't be the direct financial beneficiary of someone whose work you're supposed to be evaluating?

Second, that I think a lot of what he presented as his own work was actually done by other people at the place where we both worked. Not so much me, but other people. And not just data entry or mechanical work, but some of the basic ideas that he presents were first suggested and worked out by people other than him. I don't know if he gives credit for this in the dissertation, but I doubt it.

So the questions are:

- Are these legitimate concerns?

- If they are, is it worth it for me to raise them? I wouldn't benefit directly, since I don't work with him anymore, but its been bugging me for the last year or so.

- If I do decide to do something about it, who do I complain to? Do schools like this (for example, SUNY Albany) have an ethics panel? An academic integrity review committee?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Before you do anything else you need to read his dissertation! If you can PROVE that he used other people's ideas without giving them credit maybe then you might consider doing something about it. Can you also prove that he did something specific that enriched committee members, or is this just rumor and speculation?

But do you really want to spend a lot of time investigating someone who is apparently no longer around you? Don't you have more productive research to do? Or is this just an investigation into character for a short story you're writing?
posted by mareli at 6:36 AM on October 30, 2009

I can't answer your question, but you might ask the mods to fix your question to say "who I think violated them," because it's backwards now and makes it seem like your question is about someone who thinks YOU violated ethics. It was confusing.
posted by ishotjr at 6:38 AM on October 30, 2009

I don't know what you can or should do about the first issue.

For the second, get a copy of the dissertation and confirm that ideas were taken without giving credit. Then bring this to the attention of the people whose ideas were allegedly stolen.
posted by wigner3j at 6:41 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

PhD's like this devalue all other PhD's. That's the prime reason things like this shouldn't be allowed to happen. In other words, if your grades or degrees are something you base your career and life, you must not allow devaluation or inflation of them. This is, I believe, the concrete and practical underpinning of the bad ethics of getting a 'cheap' PhD.

Still thinking, haven't got more to say right now.
posted by krilli at 6:43 AM on October 30, 2009

Wow. I would tread very carefully. It sounds a little like your dislike for this person is coloring your opinion of his work. You're vague, but a lot of this sounds speculative, and it's the kind of thing you can't just "report" without having a shred of actual proof.

There are rules about conflict of interest in advising relationships, of course. They are specific to particular schools. More than that, if this was social science research it likely had to clear institutional IRB, which usually entails attesting to any potential financial conflicts of interest. This sort of accusation -- that the committee was biased or showed interested preference -- is a hard one to make or prove, especially if the dissertation falls within the normal range of acceptable quality on its surface (if you can prove plagiarism, that's something else again, see below). The proper authority in this case is the office of the Graduate Dean (or whatever that person is called) of the school. I wouldn't touch such an accusation from your position (which you don't clarify much) or from a Dean's position, however, unless you possess incontrovertible hard proof of a significant conflict of interest or the dissertation is clearly not of passable quality in the department in question. You'll create enemies for the rest of your own career if you are wrong or can't prove it (you will anyway, by the way, so judge whether the redress you seek is worth that risk to your own career).

Plagiarism is something else again. If you can prove word-for-word plagiarism (or falsification of empirical findings, or the use of someone else's data or analysis without attribution) and it comprises any significant aspect of the dissertation, the person who has a complaint is the person plagiarized (and/or his/her publisher, if applicable). You don't have standing to do more than report it to that person, or call attention to it in normal scholarly settings where you'd discuss the plagiarized work anyway (a review, for example). If you have hard proof, you could alert the dissertation adviser or the Graduate Dean's office, but in my experience you will be taking a similar risk to the one described above if there's any wiggle room in the situation for interpretation.

People who cheat their way to a PhD usually get found out eventually, either for that or for whatever dishonest thing they do next. It's awfully hard to do it, though, in a reputable program and school. There are a lot of checks and balance. Presumably there were outside members of this guy's dissertation committee, for instance. How come they didn't see this?

Be careful. I would frankly ask the mods to anonymize this question, since you don't disguise your real identity. Unless you know you're right, proceed as if you're probably wrong.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:45 AM on October 30, 2009

The second point you bring up is definitely a big red flag, at least if he didn't give proper credit to people creating the techniques. Most schools have an office of academic integrity, failing that they must have a graduate studies office that you can bring this to. You can even go talk to the dean or one of the associate/vice deans for the appropriate faculty.

I think the first issue you suggested is at least more of a grey area. I mean, I'm a PhD student and my supervisor (who is on my committee) as well as one other of my committee members who we collaborate with, have a vested financial interest my work being successful, as it gives them better opportunities for funding and grants. It's definitely not the same thing, but they've got a financial interest in my work being published. Also, the sooner I submit and defend that work, the sooner my supervisor can stop paying me and bring someone else in to work on other questions.

It's definitely not the same thing, but I think in academia it's expected that people put these things aside when evaluating dissertations (and the like) and view it purely on its merits. You'd have to show that the thesis was substandard to make this argument stick, I think.

Also, are you sure you want to do this? I wouldn't expect to be able to make this claim anonymously, and news like this can spread quickly. Think about whether you want to sacrifice your own reputation for this, and whether your personal dislike of this person might be clouding your judgement.

on preview: yes, read the thesis first of all, and better yet, have someone else you know and trust (in your research field) read it too. A second opinion that understands the material will be invaluable here.
posted by dnesan at 6:51 AM on October 30, 2009

A further thought: I file a conflict of interest disclosure for every student of mine who is doing a dissertation, as part of the IRB process, in which I swear under penalty of perjury that I have none, or else have fully disclosed, any financial interest I have in a student's research (which is always none in my case). Lying about this could cost me my tenure and my reputation. That's even before we deal with the process for sponsored (externally funded, as are most of my students' diss. projects) research. If this person had IRB approval, I guarantee you such a disclosure of conflicts exists.

The more I think about this question, and re-read it, the more I think you're acting out of rage and dislike for the guy and should just drop the whole thing. I dislike a lot of people in academia who do what I think of as half-assed scholarship. I try not to let the former inflect my opinion of the latter. I know total assholes who do good work too. And lovely people who do shitty work. It's all there. Actual serious plagiarism and dishonest are a whole different thing, always a disqualification for being taken seriously as a colleague no matter how "good" the work or popular the person.

Just back away. There's nothing for you to gain here. He's out of academia anyway and it sounds like he has little hope of a future career in academia. There are bigger fish to fry.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:52 AM on October 30, 2009

Having a career interest in one's students' success is not a financial conflict of interest. Of course it improves my reputation and the overall level of resources for my program when a student gets a grant or a fellowship or a job or publishes something. In the long run, it advances my career and I make more money. That's the way the system is *supposed* to work to incentivize my productivity across the board. It's absurd to equate that (or even resources that flow to a program from external funding for an individual student -- equipment purchased with federal funds belongs to the school, for example, in some cases) with money going into my personal pocket as a cut of a student's research funding or from income derived from a patent or copyright a student earns for his/her research findings.

CoI is a specific legal concept. Be clear on its application in an academic setting.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:56 AM on October 30, 2009

If you think it can be proven that this person stole someone's work, and that someone is not you, pass the information along to the wronged party.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:01 AM on October 30, 2009

First of all, as others have said, you need to read his dissertation before you make any claims. If he gave credit where credit was due, then there's no problem with including other peoples' ideas, data, etc in his dissertation.

Second of all, I think this has the potential to be very difficult and painful for you. Three faculty members signed off on the dissertation, so any accusation you make about the dissertation will indirectly implicate those faculty members in, if not academic dishonesty, then academic laziness. I'm not saying you shouldn't follow up on this, but I would tread very carefully, and keep in mind the fact everyone will probably prefer to sweep it under the carpet.

It's admirable that you want to help maintain academic integrity at your institution, but I think you should expect your efforts to be rewarded mostly with a major headache.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:02 AM on October 30, 2009

Get on with your life and stop worrying about his.

On the first count, you'd probably need to show that either there was a clear quid pro quo or that the dissertation was unpassable. You can't have investigated to find the first, you're not qualified to weigh in on the second unless it's simply outrageous, and a university or department isn't likely to conduct a thorough investigation on the grounds that someone from work who doesn't like him says so.

On the second count, did the people at work whose ideas he supposedly stole publish them or otherwise write them up for public or internal consumption with a clear datestamp? If not, there won't be any evidence of his stealing their ideas, because there won't be any evidence of their ideas. And again, the university isn't likely to start a full investigation and somehow subpoena or otherwise interview all the people at your workplace just because an enemy at a previous employer said dirt about him.

if this was social science research it likely had to clear institutional IRB

Only if it involves doing research on human subjects. My social science dissertation didn't clear IRB; the only source data I was using was public records of elected officials, exempt under 101b4. Your own department might have a rule that everyone has to at least get declared exempt by the IRB, but that's not universal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry to pepper this question with responses, but it's a subject I know something about. I can report that I have actually done something like what you're considering: I encountered someone relatively well known (but not in academia except in marginal ways) who was claiming to have a PhD. I doubted it. I went public with my doubt. He was in fact lying and did not have a PhD, although it took months to definitively prove this during which I had a constant headache from the situation, and it had serious consequences for him. I've also been involved adjudicating major charges of plagiarism at the dissertation level (not for one of my students, may it never happen; a grad student of mine who plagiarized would be dead to me thereafter, so strongly do I feel about this subject). The ensuing brouhaha is always enormous. Whole careers are at stake, and that makes people get very worked up and angry.

I nonetheless regret having outed this guy. He is an asshole. But he wasn't having much of a career and his claim to have the PhD was really window dressing. I was so offended by the claims he was making in his "work" and by his falsification of the credential that I acted out of rage.

I now see him as pathetic, and all the sturm und drang my actions created as a waste of time.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:09 AM on October 30, 2009 [4 favorites]

ROU, fair point. I would have to check (because I don't think about it, all my students need IRB approval as a matter of policy in my program) but I think the CoI terms to which one swears for IRB approval are still binding on faculty whether they do it on a per-case basis or accept the terms as a condition of employment or appointment to the graduate faculty.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:12 AM on October 30, 2009

If he's a former colleague, why are you still obsessed with doing him professional harm? Lots of ppl have PhDs that don't mean anything. Academia is now a business, even though plenty of us have a sense that it shouldn't be. But frankly, you need to just move on. This sounds like you're jealous of his new job and that he didn't get "properly punished" for being the jerk he is.

Just move on with your life and pretend he never existed.
posted by anniecat at 8:16 AM on October 30, 2009


Back off. Let him publish his book based on this purloined research. Then write a review for a major journal that will end his scholarly career. Seriously, this is the way the system works. Anything outside of the normal channels of peer-review is needless drama and a waste of time.
posted by felix betachat at 8:43 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

My spontaneous reaction to this question is 'let go'. It feels like there are too many emotions involved here. It is difficult to see what your concern really is. That should be sorted out before you ask whether it is "legitimate".

About the meat of the matter sans personal vendetta:
Point one, even if someone in his committee has been (gr)eased into his job like you suggest: if the dissertation is (would be) a good one this is (would be) nothing to worry about. (It may be disgusting or whatever else, but it's of no consequence in relationship to the work itself - quite like that the personal traits of the guy in question are irrelevant for the question at hand).

Point two, as someone else said, if you, after close-reading the dissertation, can actually prove that something fishy has been going on in the copy-cat department (and only then), you might begin worrying about what ought to be your role in the process of unveiling this to the larger public.
My own experience is that this kind of stuff is a) a waste of time and energy b) would make me feel even unhappier than I may be under normal conditions c) prevents me from addressing the things I have to do myself and d) is not seen as helpful by anyone else.
posted by Namlit at 8:47 AM on October 30, 2009

Would you be as troubled if this were a close friend that you liked? If yes, and you still want to pursue this, then read the dissertation, assemble your proof, and if you still want to pursue this then go about finding someone at the university with whom you can discuss your concerns.
posted by KAS at 9:09 AM on October 30, 2009

« Older Website to sort and display different mountain...   |   Examples of image zooming/enhancement cliché from... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.