I came across an article in the UK Independent a few days ago which highlighted the problem of falsifying research results. The proposed response to this kind of fraudulent behavior is to punish the university. I suppose the idea is that it should force each institution to be a little more vigilant about the quality of research published by its own academics.
But it seems to me that this problem of falsification of research results is actually just a symptom of a far wider societal problem which will not be solved by increasing punishments. The question to ask is – why would an academic falsify results? There may be more complex answers but essentially it is to make their work look better, so it can be published in a higher impact journal which can then leverage research funding and ultimately lead to an increase in the profile of the person in their field and/or a promotion within the university.
This kind of choice is not limited to academia. We live in a world which increasingly values extrinsic things – money, power and status. It is evident in politics – where retaining power becomes more important than service to the people. We wrangle with each other over these things trying to get ahead even if it is simply within our small social circle.
The real danger though is the presumption that the problem is simply ‘out there’ with ‘other people’ who have no integrity. Integrity isn’t a quality that magically appears when it is most needed. It is something we need to practice on a daily basis. For each of us the point of temptation will be different. It may be that we are willing to let others carry us along doing minimum work. It may be that we charge things to business accounts that we really shouldn’t. It may be that we simply avoid facing painful choices, because if we procrastinate long enough they will go away. It may be that we fail attend to our own shortcomings when relationships become strained.
Integrity is not something that is rewarded in our society. But if we want to live in a good and just society we all have to pull our weight. Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis writes of the experience of realizing that he was one of the ‘elders’ in his field – there was no further body to oversee the field and make sure that things were being done appropriately. We cannot look to others to be the people of integrity. We need to step up. if we want to live in a world of integrity we need to be prepared to examine our own actions, to recognize where we may be falling a little short and to make the changes we need to.