Misconduct and Social Control in Science: Issues, Problems, Solutions

By Fox, Mary Frank; Braxton, John M. | Journal of Higher Education, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

Misconduct and Social Control in Science: Issues, Problems, Solutions


Fox, Mary Frank, Braxton, John M., Journal of Higher Education


Science stakes a claim as a profession, and it is under this professional rubric that scientific conduct, misconduct, and its social control -- the concerns of this article -- must be considered. The term "professional" has been variously applied [21], but as used here a profession is an occupation with particular characteristics, first systematically specified and analyzed by Carr-Saunders and Wilson in a historical treatment of each occupational group that might be identified as a profession in England at the time of their research, the first third of the twentieth century [7].

Over the next sixty years, other theorists expanded and developed Carr-Saunders' and Wilson's model, but the professions themselves and the social scientists examining them have continued to focus upon certain core characteristics of professions as systematized in the original model: (1) a systematic theory or base of knowledge acquired during long and intensive training; (2) authority, the mandate to decide what is and is not in the interests of clients; (3) autonomy, the capacity to make decisions and exercise judgment without interference from those outside the profession; and (4) community sanction, the wider community's approval of the right of the profession to govern itself and set its own standards of behavior [17, pp. 128--29].

These core characteristics are unified by concepts of "dominance" and "control" -- of the profession and by the profession. The hallmarks of dominance and control have been reshaped in analyses as asymmetric relationships between professional members and clients (and other professional members) and later in analyses as economic monopoly -- both hallmarks resting upon professional expertise and knowledge [1, p. 5]. Because science, in particular, is grounded in abstract and systematic theory and rationality, it has been regarded as the prototype for a profession's claim to authoritative knowledge. In fact, other occupations (from law to librarianship) have tried to mimic scientific rationality and practice in their moves for dominance and control [11, p. 33].

In analyzing conduct, misconduct, and social control of illegitimate behavior in science, the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate behavior are debatable and are to some extent variable by discipline and research areas [13, 15, 20]. By general statement, however, misconduct encompasses acts of deception -- alteration of data or materials, false representation of authorship or originality, and misrepresentation to advance oneself or to hurt the career or position of another [24]. In science, professional self-policing or control of standards of conduct becomes central, because such control protects the public support that enables science education and research through tax revenues and profits from industry, and because it protects the practice of science, the validity of scientific findings according to methodological canon [32, p. 524], the very activity of the scientific enterprise.

Control is exercised not just by individual scientists, but by institutional arrangements -- federal agencies and bodies, universities, scientific journals -- which together form a trans-scientific community that is not stably constituted or crystallized over time and concerns but varies in its alliances depending upon the issues and interests at stake. In this concluding article to the issue on Perspectives on Research Misconduct, the questions are these: What roles do these segments of the scientific community play in exercising control of misconduct? How effective are they? Are there structural limitations upon their control of misconduct? What implications do our assessments have for policy on misconduct and its control? In addressing these questions, we draw upon the foregoing articles in this issue as well as other theory and research.

The Exercise of Social Control

Federal Government

Because science is funded through public monies, it rests upon public confidence in the integrity and usefulness of its activity [16]. …

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