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A Failure of Research Ethics

A Failure of Research Ethics

A Failure of Research Ethics

Science magazine retracts gay-marriage canvassing study

The recent retraction of a groundbreaking study originally published in the esteemed journal Science has spurred discussion in the Center’s Emerging Issues Group on ethical considerations in the collection and publication of scientific and sociological findings. The group meets weekly to discuss ethical issues behind the news.

In their study, UCLA grad student Michael LaCour and Columbia political science professor Donald Green claimed that a direct discussion with a gay canvasser could shift an individual’s view on same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage has become an increasingly prominent social issue over the past decade, resulting in dozens of states striking down bans via the courts and popular vote. According to the report, many Californians changed their beliefs on same-sex marriage after engaging in a simple dialogue with a gay person. However, red flags went up after UC Berkeley students Joshua Kalla and David Broockman attempted unsuccessfully to replicate the results with a study of their own. Brookman and Kalla eventually issued a public refutation of the study, and LaCour has since been unable or unwilling to provide the original data to prove its veracity. Soon afterward Science opted to retract the article, upon Green’s request.

In recent days LaCour has come out with a lengthy rebuttal to allegations of fraudulent data and falsified funding, but an abundance of questions remain unanswered. Why was the entire set of raw data erased? Shouldn’t it have been stored in a databank, as Green advised? Why is there such confusion about which survey company was used for the study? Why did LaCour feel the need to lie about his lack of grant money? Even if we are able to one day secure answers to these questions, we’ll still be left with one formidable, overarching concern: What does this mean for the world of scientific publishing, from an ethical standpoint?

Participants in the Emerging Issues discussion pointed to the pressure graduate students and professors face to get their scholarly work published; this phenomenon has been termed “publish or perish.” An inability to meet this lofty expectation has brought many a career in academia tumbling down. Did LaCour, a doctoral candidate in political science, feel a looming pressure to get his work published and set his career on the right path? Quite possibly. Should that ever justify the submission of a fraudulent study? The group was unanimous in their conclusion: absolutely not. But understanding this pressure might illuminate why academics attach their name to ill-advised or even fabricated projects.

On the opposite side of the publication process, journals confront ongoing pressure to track down and publish the top cutting-edge stories. Even a renowned journal like Science isn’t immune from fierce competition. Alongside Science, a multitude of scholarly publications like Nature and Cell all vie for the revolutionary headlines that can vault them into mainstream conversations.

What’s disappointing and even alarming in the case of LaCour and Green’s study is the apparent lack of checks applied prior to publication. Science wasn’t directly responsible for falsifying the content they published, but it’s probably appropriate to ask whether they were guilty of publishing research too soon.

Also, when the data that’s reported looks too good to be true, there’s an inherent ethical obligation to dig deeper. In this case, that obligation seems to have been circumvented by other scholars’ respect for Donald Green. In an article for Slate, Jesse Singal reports:

LaCour’s results were so impressive that, on their face, they didn’t make sense. Jon Krosnick, a Stanford social psychologist who focuses on attitude change and also works on issues of scientific transparency, says that he hadn’t heard about the study until he was contacted by a “This American Life” producer who described the results to him over the phone. “Gee,” he replied, “that's very surprising and doesn't fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn't sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, Krosnick had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he told the producer, “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I'm no longer doubtful.” (Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.)

Fortunately, the process of science itself eventually brought the truth to light. Establishing a scientific fact means checking to see that it is measurable, replicable, and verifiable. That’s what Broockman and Kalla did, and when they discovered that LaCour’s results did not meet those criteria, they blew the whistle.

Elliot Zanger is the Web coordinator at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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