Science and Integrity

Introduction

This introduction is being written in April, 2009. The account about the nanoscale, featured in the second story below, was written in early 2007. My initial, vehement reaction has mellowed significantly in the meantime and I now view my reaction then as unnecessarily agitated. I remain critical of the faulty scholarship I described there earlier but no longer view the false claim about the priority of the idea as such a terrible transgrestion. Such misrepresentation is just more of a too common base human behavior, too often found in the practice of science.


Originality emerges as the central theme when discussing the history of science. A scientist who experiences originality (whether relative or absolute) may also experience the ecstasy of the process of discovery. However, the ultra-entreprenuer who makes false claims regarding originality certainly fails to experience the ecstasy felt during the process.


The human capacity to experience ecstasy, or cosmic religious sense, as Albert Einstein put it, is the real wonder (click on the Lectures button to the left, and read the Einstein notes. To open a new browser window, click here). The term ecstasy confers too much a sense of pleasure that cosmic religious sense does not, but Einstein’s use of the word religious has been widely misunderstood [Einstein’s religiosity]. Awe and wonder must be added to mere pleasure to begin to get a sense of what Einstein had in mind.

 

 

This component of fefox.com is dedicated to the issue of integrity in science. Nearly every practicing scientist can tell you stories about breaches of integrity they have witnessed. The danger to science, per se, is not great or long lasting. After all, grand claims in science attract widespread interest, and when others are unable to confirm the original claims, these claims are no longer accepted and their proponents lose credibility. Sometimes this adjustment takes time and fraudulent claims have even lead to major prizes but in the long run, science gets corrected. It is the short run that we scientists live in that matters personally. It is, therefore, important for young scientists to become aware of this issue early in their careers so that the impact of such events on their own productivity is not too damaging. Primarily I mean this as advice to victims of other’s lack of integrity, but I also mean this as advice to anyone who might think shading the truth can do them some good anyway.

 

In my career, I have had several such events impact my scientific life. From time to time I will report these instances under this heading in the form of separate stories. Naturally you will see only my side to the story. A Dean under whom I served was fond of stating: “there are two sides to every story.” He did this to suggest that no issue was clear cut and that because of this he would not take action in most cases. I often objected that there were two sides alright, the truthful and the untruthful. Integrity has to do with being able to identify the truthful from the untruthful. It further requires that once the truth has been identified one must then take appropriate action. Knowing there has been a breach of integrity and then doing nothing about it is also a breach of integrity.

 

Stories by Ron

 

Stories by Others

One of the components to the life of an academician is service. Faculty members are expected to teach, do research, write publishable papers, get research grants, write grant reports, advise students and perform service, usually on committees. Most of us learn to do most of this on the job without formal instruction. I did my share of each of these tasks. In the early 1990’s (see my CV) I was a member of the Faculty Status and Grievance Committee (FSGC) for Georgia Tech. In my third year I was the committee Chairperson. I saw a lot of cases involving integrity. These involved academic misconduct, sexual harassment and even a sitting Institute President’s loss of sanity (and his job). I mention this in order to suggest that my experience with breaches of integrity is perhaps more than the norm for an academic. It was fascinating service but it also slowly diminished my respect for academe and the persons who inhabit it. Integrity in academe is no more nor no less than in other walks of life, it is a human enterprise.

 

I like a quote attributed to Warren Buffett:

“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it's true. If you hire someone without integrity, you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

 

I have put a sub-quote in boldface because one often sees this smaller quote cited as the quote. In fact, it would be nice to identify the “Somebody” to whom Buffett refers. One of my stories will be about just this sort of situation.

 

Plagiarism is a very common type of breach of integrity. One of my stories is a wonderful example of plagiarism. It is so blatant that it is amusing. One needs to be somewhat understanding about this particular topic. Two situations mitigate against being too harsh about it when it is detected. 1) Once a colleague came to me to discuss a problem he was having. After a lengthy discussion I made suggestions to him that should lead to a solution. About three months passed and he again visited me, but this time very excited. He proceeded to tell me how he had solved a problem on which he had labored for some time. He told me precisely what I had told him to do three months earlier. This is idea plagiarism but it is excuseable. When I told him what to do he didn’t really understand it at the time. After working on it over time the ideas I had planted in his brain grew and became sensible to him. They were now “his ideas.” I have seen many instances of this. After all, had he remembered and understood that he got the germ of the idea from me would he have come to me to tell me about his great new idea? 2) We often read papers we do not understand very well. We may make notes but not with all necessary references. Later we come to the same ideas as if they were our own. Sometimes our notes contain verbatim statements that are later incorporated into text without attribution. This is plagiarism but again of the type just explained. I see this very frequently and have even caught myself doing it once or twice, but I did catch it in time. It isn’t necessary for scientific plagiarism to be verbatim, the ideas alone can constitute plagiarism. We are not talking prose or poetry here, but science. I remember reading a paper, six months after a grant proposal I wrote was reviewed, in which the main ideas of the proposal were the heart of the paper. I remain less charitable about how that happened. It made writing later grant proposals a delicately balanced act of clarity and abscurity. If you read my China Chronicles you will come across another example of idea plagiarism in which I confronted the author of a paper in which my work was highlighted as his.

 

The issue of integrity is not always a negative issue. I will close this introduction with a positive story about exhibiting integrity. When Michael Berry gave the Lilienfeld prize lecture for 1990, he looked at me in the audience (the APS March meeting was in Atlanta that year) and thanked me for “inseminating him with the idea” that led to Berry’s phase, I was amazed and grateful. What a fine gentlemen. Many of my colleagues were there and Jerry Gollub sat next to me. Jerry jokingly said to me: “in the future I will pay more attention to what you have to say.”  Berry earlier put his thanks into print on page 26 of the retrospective chapter: “The Quantum Phase, Five Years After” pp. 7-28 in Geometric Phases in Physics Advanced Series in Mathematical Physics Vol. 5, Editors: Alfred Shapere and Frank Wilczek (World Scientific, Singapore, 1989). This is also an example of how the right question can break open a hard problem. Michael Berry is now Sir Michael Berry, an outstanding mathematical physicist, and an exemplar of intellectual integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2007-2014 Ron F. Fox