Academic Economists Behaving Badly? a Survey on Three Areas of Unethical Behavior

By List, John A.; Bailey, Charles D. et al. | Economic Inquiry, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Academic Economists Behaving Badly? a Survey on Three Areas of Unethical Behavior


List, John A., Bailey, Charles D., Euzent, Patricia J., Martin, Thomas L., Economic Inquiry


THOMAS L. MARTIN [*]

This article measures the degree to which academic economists have engaged in unethical behavior and the degree to which academic economists believe the profession as a whole engages in unethical behavior. Three main types of unethical behavior are examined: (1) falsification of research; (2) expropriation of graduate student research or including an undeserving co-author on a research paper; and (3) exchange of grades for gifts, money, or sex. Using a unique data set gathered at the 1998 American Economic Association (AEA) meetings, we find that there is a significant amount of misconduct, particularly in the second category (JEL A11, A13)

I. INTRODUCTION

Both the popular and academic press have noted the existence of falsified research in the hard sciences and in medicine. U.S. nuclear weapons tests conducted in the 1950s came under attack in the 1960s for allegedly using false data and defrauding federal courts concerning the health impact on downwind humans and livestock. The discovery of the deception of research subjects and the reporting of fabricated experiments led to a new emphasis in the 1960s and 1970s on the ethics of scientific research (Shrader-Frechette [1994]). Federally funded research, in particular, came under closer scrutiny of the White House and various executive branch agencies (LaFollette [1994]). Recently, front-page stories in major newspapers have reported that Robert P. Liburdy, a cell biologist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, resigned after investigators with the Office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that he falsified key data tying cancer to electrical power lines (Schevitz [1999 ]; Broad [1999]).

In economics research, with no lives in danger, it would seem that such behavior would be easier to rationalize. An inflated t-ratio here, an undeserving co-author there--who really is hurt by such behavior? Academic economists, after all, do not have patients. [1] Nevertheless, most scholars would agree that research is intended to further the pursuit of truth. Fraudulent or unethical research will poison the well of that scientific truth. Ethical conduct in research is not a matter of etiquette but a question of the moral principles by which any researcher is guided.

In the past few decades there have been efforts to examine the ethics of research in the areas of hard science, medicine, engineering, and national security (see, e.g., Hook [19771; Bulmer [1982]; Sieber [19921). [2] A few decades ago our own discipline experienced an unfathomable event--the Quarterly Journal of Economics was forced to withdraw a published article after learning that its "author" had simply copied the work of another economist (QJE [1984]). A similar incident recently occurred in the economics journal Kyklos, forcing the editors to issue a public apology that included a strong statement: "Plagiarism jeopardizes scientific research" (Kyklos [1999, 311]). These pieces of evidence suggest that unethical research practices occur within economics, but very little nonanecdotal evidence exists to measure the extent of such behavior. Our study is an attempt to measure the degree to which individual academic economists have engaged in unethical behavior and the degree to which academic economists bel ieve the profession as a whole engages in unethical behavior. Three main types of behavior are examined: (1) falsification of research; (2) expropriation of graduate student research or including an undeserving co-author; and (3) exchange of grades for gifts, money, or sexual favors. We examine the self-reported unethical behavior of the profession through anonymous responses. Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the questions, we split the sample by using direct-response questions for one group and the added protection of a "randomized response" technique for the other.

II. THE SURVEY METHOD

The ethics surveys were hand-delivered to approximately 1,000 academic economists (about 20% of the participants) attending the January 1998 meetings of the American Economic Association (AEA) in Chicago, Illinois.

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