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Most faculty and administrators agree that graduate students need to be trained in professional and scholarly standards and to report ethical and professional misconduct. On the other hand, potentially adverse consequences to whistle-blowing send a conflicting message to students, according to Philip Langlais, vice provost for graduate studies and research at Old Dominion University.

Langlais led a responsible conduct of research (RCR) workshop at the Summer Workshop for Graduate Deans, which was held by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in mid-July. As part of the workshop, he engaged the participants in discussing a case study about six graduate students at a Midwestern university who suffered irreparable damage to their careers after they turned in their faculty adviser for falsifying research data.

"This duplicity is clearly something that we don't like to talk about, but which we have to talk about," Langlais said. "We won't change the underlying culture and causes in my lifetime, but we shouldn't back off because we think a fix is impossible."

Ethics and RCR training for graduate students has been the focus of an ODU initiative led by Langlais for the past three years. On one hand, he said, we tell graduate students, "If you see serious misconduct or misbehavior, you must do something." But on the other hand, potential whistle-blowers are thinking: "If I do, my chances of finishing my degree and maybe my hopes for a professional career will go right down the tubes."

In the case study from the Midwestern university, the adviser resigned and the university's investigation found evidence that data were misrepresented. But, according to an article from the Sept. 1, 2006, issue of Science magazine that Langlais distributed at the seminar, the graduate students "caught in the middle have found that for all the talk about honesty's place in science, little good has come to them." Their overall research project was compromised and their research funding was cut off. Three of the students-who had invested a total of 16 years toward their Ph.D.s-quit school. Two started over at other universities.

Langlais posed two questions to the 80 graduate school administrators in his seminar: What role, if any, should the graduate dean play in training graduate students about the risks and benefits of whistle-blowing? What policies and procedures should be in place to protect the careers and reputations of students who step forward with allegations of faculty misconduct or serious misbehavior?

Discussion among the deans about RCR and whistle-blowing was lively, Langlais said. "It is revolutionary to say that we need to change the culture and criteria for academic advancement, to openly recognize that the current rewards system creates pressures to get research funding and attain tenure and promotion that, in turn, promote misconduct and misbehavior."

Debra Stewart, president of the CGS, sent Langlais a letter late in July thanking him for his presentation in San Juan. She called it "exceptionally effective and exactly what we had hoped for." She asked permission, which Langlais gave, to post his PowerPoint outline on the CGS Web site, www.cgsnet.org.

ODU was part of the CGS pilot program that began in 2004 to develop best practices for comprehensive ethics and RCR education in graduate programs. In 2006, ODU successfully applied for support in the second wave of the CGS program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and will expand upon the original work. Langlais has led ODU's participation from the beginning.

An ODU task force has done research on campus to gauge student and faculty perceptions and skills regarding ethical decision making and to frame a general plan for the ethics training that is needed.

In his presentation to the deans, Langlais stressed the importance of assessing the RCR climate in a particular college or department. The ODU research shows, for example, that faculty members are much more likely than graduate students to believe that ethical standards and RCR are adequately covered in current programs.

An initial assessment of perceptions and skills, Langlais told the deans, forms the basis for education and innovation in the areas of ethics and RCR. Specific remedies will take time to develop, but, in the meantime, open lines of discussion between administrators, faculty and graduate students will keep the RCR issues well defined and out in the open, Langlais added.

In an interview, Langlais said the survey conducted by the ODU task force has been refined and is being used in RCR assessments at about a dozen other universities. He and the CGS plan to seek funding to expand the survey into a Web-based research tool that would build a national database about the RCR climate.

The ODU vice provost has been invited to several major conferences to present components of the university's ethics initiative. Many of these invitations sprang from a commentary he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education early last year advocating ethics training for graduate students. That article summed up the high incidences of plagiarism and falsification of data and other RCR lapses in academe that have been reported by popular media and research papers. It also described the work of the ODU RCR task force.

In a recent article in Quest, the ODU research magazine, Langlais described results from the campus survey, including data suggesting important effects of cultural background and gender in self-assessed knowledge and decision-making skills in RCR.

A news article about research ethics in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Nov. 10, 2006, noted ODU's role in the CGS initiative. Participation in the CGS initiative "is another recognition of ODU's leadership in this important area," Langlais said.

This article was posted on: July 31, 2007

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