Research integrity and ‘The Art of War’

Cover of an edition of The Art of WarIf anyone needs a reminder of the damage that can be caused when research integrity is called into question — rightly or wrongly — take a look at the news coverage of N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill lately.

It’s hard to argue against the idea that any time the news media’s attention is drawn to research integrity questions, everyone involved loses.  Accusations tend to stick in the public consciousness regardless of the outcome, especially in complex, drawn-out situations. Even when the process of correcting scientific errors plays out as it should — as may well be case now at State — it is at best a slow, painstaking process that doesn’t lend itself well to the appetite of  the news media and the public for quick, clear resolutions.

The Art of War offers a lesson that applies especially to well to these situations: The highest virtue is not to win a battle, but rather to win without a battle. Avoiding a fight — in this case by conducting research in an unquestionably rigorous way and taking any questions about the results seriously rather than defensively– is even better than winning.  That doesn’t mean you can necessarily avoid being dragged into the mud by someone with an agenda, but it’s your best defense.

The researchers in the N.C. State case had a chance to avoid going to war over their results but chose a stonewalling strategy that invited trouble even if they’re right. In Chapel Hill … what a mess. The researcher herself may or may not have produced valid results, but when she went to CNN, her own administration chose to go to the mattresses, questioning results they found problematic in a way that, so far, at least, has generated more heat than light.

Details and links follow the jump.

NCSU: A 10-year battle over claims of research fraud

The News & Observer in Raleigh published a high-profile, two-part series over the weekend on 10 years of wrangling at N.C. State over what chemistry professor Dr. Stefan Franzen claims — with what appears to be considerable evidence — was research fraud on a project funded by the National Science Foundation and others:

“After years of going through all the prescribed channels in the science community and at N.C. State, he’s taking his story public.

“Franzen is convinced that his colleagues knew early on that their research was flawed, and he was outraged when they refused to correct their misrepresentations. Legal threats and investigations ensued. An acrimonious battle raged in the arcane journals of research chemistry. He says university lawyers and administrators were more worried about controlling damage to N.C. State’s reputation than about maintaining scientific standards and ethics. …

“His quest to correct the record raises larger issues. How much false science is published? Who polices the misconduct, and how well?”

Click here to see the two-part series.

UNC-CH: Running over a researcher as they circle the wagons

Meanwhile, at UNC-Chapel Hill, the fallout from the university’s athletic scandals now includes the chancellor and provost denouncing one of their own researchers who studied the reading levels of Tar Heel athletes.

First, the university’s Institutional Review Board reversed itself and decided that, now that they’ve seen the results, the research on athletes actually did require IRB oversight after all:

UNC board suspends whistle-blower’s research on literacy level of athletes.

And now the provost has joined the chancellor in going into full attack mode to defend the athletics program from the researcher:

UNC leaders say Mary Willingham’s claims on athletes’ academics ‘a travesty’.

Members of the Faculty Council who heard the administration’s side of the story may not be altogether behind Willingham, but not all of them are ready to lock her in the pillory and throw away the key, according to The N&O:

Some faculty praised Folt and Dean for their presentation. Others said they worried about the damage to the university from the continued revelations after the scandals involving athletics and academic fraud in the African and Afro-American Studies Department.

Richard Weinberg, a professor of cell biology and physiology, said the board’s decision to suspend the research could turn into “a real mess,” even if there was a good explanation for it. “I certainly hope that there was no external pressure put on the IRB,” he said.

Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science, said the presentation Friday sounded like “a stonewall.”

“What I see so far, unfortunately, is a strategy of denial and almost anger or resentment when these allegations are being brought up,” he said, “when they could be brought up anywhere and our university could take this opportunity to become a leader … to make some real reforms.”

Have no doubt about it: Once this kind of dispute goes public and the news media get interested, everyone ends up in the mud. Even the ones who are right.  And even with a newspaper as responsible as The N&O.  You can’t always avoid this kind of battle, but any time you can, you’ll come out ahead.

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