Integrity in academia


MEMBERSHIP of the academia carries with it special responsibilities towards students, colleagues, the university, the community of which the university is a part and the scholar’s own conscience.

One such responsibility is to observe academic integrity i.e. the moral code or ethical policies of the university.

This is a vast and evolving area. It straddles many shores within which the waters of ethics, economics, law and technology intermingle.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that new issues are coming to the fore.

Cyber information: An important issue is the challenge and opportunity of cyber sources of information. Technology has taken the search out of research.

We used to rely on direct sources to obtain material; now a large amount of information, some of it of dubious quality, some of it with no stated authorship, is available at our finger tips.

Previously, information was created by individuals. Now information is more of a communal property, indicating the rise of a sort of “collective intelligence”.

We need to put our heads together to see how to confront the challenge posed by cyber information to the traditional notions of plagiarism and copyright.

Academic publishing: In the growing atmosphere of “publish or perish”, all academicians are required to produce original research. With this new demand, questions of research integrity come to the fore.

Doctored findings: A large part of research financing inevitably comes from external organisations (i.e. the government and industry). This creates the temptation to sacrifice impartial truth in order to please the paying client.

One way to mitigate the problem is to have elaborate rules for declaring sources of revenue and disclosing of clients’ interests.

How far such disclosures work is open to question because interested sponsors can hide behind a web of corporate relationships.

Withheld results: A more insidious problem is when the outcome of one study is withheld so that the sponsors of other lucrative studies are not uncomfortable.

Supervisor-supervisee relationship: Around the world, research supervisors feel that being a supervisor entitles them to put their name as a lead author or co-author of their students’ articles and seminar papers.

There are clear problems of academic integrity here.

Mere supervision, direction, correction, or guidance with sources and materials does not entitle a supervisor to claim authorship of his student’s work despite the undoubted time, talent and effort expended to discuss, guide and correct the student’s output.

Intellectual ownership is a function of creative contribution, not of formal relationship or status. Only those who made substantial creative contribution to a product are entitled to be listed as its authors or inventors for the following reasons:

> The guidance a supervisor gives is part and parcel of his selfless, professional and ethical duty.

> If a supervisor partly appropriates his student’s work, then the student cannot use that work in any substantial manner in his thesis as he is not the sole creator of that work.

> The supervisor descends to a conflict of interest situation. He cannot evaluate the work that is already published as partly his own!

> The university cannot award a degree to a candidate whose work was partly produced by the university’s employee!

> If a Masters or PhD student, after graduating, files a formal complaint against his supervisor for misappropriating the student’s work (and it is a matter of time before this happens) the university may have no choice but to open investigation under Act 605 to determine who did the actual researching and composing of the work.

It must be noted, however, that authorship and ownership involve different legal considerations. A sponsored research may be written by someone but owned by the sponsor.

Also different rules may apply if a lecturer brings in the grants and enters into a contractual relationship with students or research assistants to work under his supervision for his project.

Even in such a case, however, ethics demand acknowledgment of the research team.

Pay to publish: Increasingly many academicians are paying to have their articles published in foreign journals that prey on our vulnerability.

Some entrepreneuring journals appoint “overseas editors” who entice aspiring people to submit articles, some of dubious quality, for a fee. The fee is then shared between the editor and the journal.

University Boards must look carefully at these journals that are converting academic publishing into a lucrative business with no regard for quality or ethics.

Joint-authorship: Another questionable practice is that academicians often team up to produce joint articles in fields quite outside their competence.

If the article was multi-disciplinary, that would be commendable.

Regrettably, the situation is often this: one lecturer contributes the research model, another does the actual research. A statistician does the analysis of data. A language lecturer does the actual writing. Another team member does the footnotes. All five then share the cost of submitting the article to a fee-demanding journal.

The end result is that academicians are publishing in areas quite outside their competence. University promotion Boards need to examine this clever practice.

Auditing: Research financing raises important issues of auditing and control.

Health and safety: There are environmental, health and safety considerations in most scientific research. The plan and costing of research should include provision for the remedying of harm.

Object of research: What constitutes legitimate and morally acceptable research is open to debate. One test is consequentialist. Are the consequences to society desirable?

The other test is deontological. Are the actions right or wrong on some higher criterion of morality, justice and human flourishing?

For example, should a scholar who is researching the sex industry and who wishes to ply the streets to study the reality first hand be allowed to do so?

Copyright: There are significant issues about the authorship versus ownership of research processes and results. There are many conflicting claims. For example, if a PhD candidate writes his thesis at a University, who owns the copyright to the work – the scholar, the supervisor, the university or the scholarship giving authority?

To me, the authorship of the scholar is indisputable and must be acknowledged.

Ownership and the right to exploit the findings are issues which require detailed legal examination and a discussion before decision.

> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM

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Opinion , Shad Faruqi

   

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