Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Academic Fraud Today: Its Social Causes and Institutional Responses

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Academic Fraud Today: Its Social Causes and Institutional Responses

Article excerpt


In this Article, I shall address a topic that we should all like to sweep under the rug if it were possible: academic integrity and its converse, academic fraud. As an initial observation, it is clear that academic fraud can occur outside the university setting at other institutions conducting research on matters of scientific importance. It is equally clear that the risk of academic fraud is not confined to the physical or biological sciences, but can also arise in research in the social sciences and the humanities. At this point, however, I shall not dwell on these differences; rather, I will concentrate on the fundamental risks to the integrity of the research mission of scholars and scientists, both inside and outside universities.

Defining this topic in this broad fashion gives ample clues as to why its mere mention is commonly the source of acute discomfort and anxiety. We do not develop institutional procedures and safeguards to celebrate scholarly integrity, which is surely the norm in research enterprises both within the academy and beyond it. We develop these systematic procedures to deal with the recurrent risk and troublesome cases of academic fraud wherever and however they appear. Our hope is that the presence of these procedures will act as a modest deterrent against the commission of these actions. But when that hope is dashed, we want to have standing procedures in place so that we do not have to improvise under pressure. Fortunately, these cases are rare, but the risks that they carry with them must never be minimized. Each documented incident of academic fraud--indeed each unproven allegation of academic fraud--saps the confidence of the public and the profession in the soundness of the research mission, which exposes every researcher whose work meets the highest standards of scientific integrity to undue scrutiny.

As I hope to show, only a comprehensive approach can meet the challenge that these cases present. The first task in dealing with academic fraud is to identify those activities that present a sufficient threat to the research mission that they should be singled out for special sanction. In other words, just how do we define academic or scientific fraud? The second, or remedial, task is every bit as important as the first. What procedures should be used to examine the cases that fall within this definition? And what additional procedures should be used to identify the extent of the fraud once its existence has been established?

This is a subject with which I have some hands-on experience. One of my most important administrative tasks at the University of Chicago was to chair the Committee on Academic Fraud in 1984, which, to the best of my knowledge, assembled the first set of systematic rules and procedures in the country for dealing with this problem. (1) Academic fraud is a relatively infrequent occurrence that has shattering implications when it occurs. In contrast, conflicts of interest are all-pervasive. I sometimes joke that the best definition of a conflict of interest is "two people" because any two people, almost by definition, always have divergent interests and goals.


In dealing with the wrongs of academic fraud, lawyers know what other academics tend to forget: that remedial issues loom just as important, and maybe more so, than the definition of the underlying wrongs which are logically prior to them. Starting with the former question, the definition of academic fraud cannot be dismissed as some arcane philosophical debate devoid of institutional consequences. In response to that question, the University of Chicago Report of Academic Fraud adopted a standard but narrow definition of the concept:

   Academic Fraud involves a deliberate effort to deceive and is
   distinguished from an honest mistake and honest differences in
   judgment or interpretation. Academic fraud is defined as
   plagiarism; fabrication or falsification of evidence, data, or
   results; the suppression of relevant evidence or data; the
   conscious misrepresentation of sources; the theft of ideas; or the
   intentional misappropriation of the research work or data of
   others. … 
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