Let us consider the following case study:

5 Aug 2009 National Post
BY JEN SKERRITT Winnipeg Free Press

Researcher censured for faking study data

WINNIPEG • The University of Manitoba has censured a former researcher after an internal investigation concluded he faked data and made up experiments that led to a seemingly groundbreaking study published in one of the world’s most prestigious science journals.
The news that disgraced University of Manitoba plant science researcher Fawzi Razem committed the biggest sin in science comes eight months after the journal Nature retracted what was once considered a breakthrough study.

Mr. Razem, working in the lab of Professor Robert Hill, claimed to have discovered a receptor for the major hormone linked to a plant’s response to environmental stress. The receptor that has eluded scientists for two decades was identified in an article and featured in the editor’s summary in the January 2006 edition of Nature, one of the world’s most renowned international science journals. Tracking down that hormone receptor would be a major breakthrough for agricultural science, as it could help plants better adapt to cold or drought.

Concerns emerged last summer when a team of researchers from New Zealand couldn’t replicate Mr. Razem’s work — a red flag that there could be serious problems with the original findings.
A December 2008 online edition of Nature said the study made “erroneous conclusions” and there is no evidence to support Mr. Razem’s findings.

The university would not initially confirm if an internal investigation was underway.
That changed on July 30 when the University of Manitoba issued a statement in a newsletter confirming that Mr. Razem had committed fraud.

“Specifically, the committee concluded that certain experiments claimed to have been conducted, in fact, were not, and that results were fabricated,” the bulletin said. “This case is a very rare and isolated incident, and there are already safeguards in place to prevent such occurrences.”
The statement said the university has implemented sanctions against Mr. Razem and that he will “never be recommended for an academic appointment of any kind at the university.”
Mr. Razem resigned when the initial allegations surfaced.

The university determined the allegations warranted an in-depth investigation and struck a committee that consisted of the academic vicepresident and three impartial faculty members. University officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

Experts say cases of academic fraud are rare and undermine the pillars of scientific research.
“It’s a crime against other researchers,” said Arthur Schafer, a University of Manitoba ethics professor. “It undermines the researchers at the university and the trust of the public and the integrity of the research.”

Although few cases are so extreme, Mr. Schafer said there is a growing concern in the research community about pressure placed on scientists to “make a name” and win lucrative corporate sponsors. Mr. Schafer said science is one of the few professions where staff have to snag grants to pay for their equipment and assistants, and there is increasing competition for research dollars.

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There are several interesting points to consider here: First, the research has claimed to discover something real about the world. Second, this claim is supposed to be backed up by actual research and evidence. Third, the test of the claim is replicability: Can other researchers get the same results by following the same procedures? Fourth, when the claimed results cannot be replicated, the claims are rejected as false. Fifth, if you make invalid claims, your reputation and standing is lost.

Has any anthropologist every been censured for having cheated? Not that I know of. Anthropologists have been criticized for being naive and wrong, such as Margaret Mead on Samoa by Derek Freeman, Richard Lee on the Kalahari by Ed Wilmsen, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes on Ireland by various Irish scholars. But none have been accused of "faking data," of cheating.

Of course, in the days of Mead, Lee, and early Scheper-Hughes, anthropologists were trying to say something true about the real world, and could be criticized for getting it wrong. But anthropology has gone beyond that naive epistemology, to a post-truth way of "knowing," in which we acknowledge the inevitable subjectivity and the impossibility of anything else, in which each "interpretation" is regarded as valid as any other interpretation (as long as it does not violate "liberal" norms, of course), and in which everyone, anthropologists included, is seen at "telling their stories." We no longer claim to "discover" anything, or to assert anything true about the world, but merely to express our positionality: gender, age, class, and race. So it is impossible to condemn anyone for "cheating" in presenting their findings. That's progress!

But if we cannot say anything about what is true, we do know what is good and bad, which side to choose. So we can condemn fellow anthropologists if they are not sufficiently sensitive, respectful, and correct in their views and Interactions, in short, not for scientific failings, but for moral failings. Thus the "infamous" Napoleon A. Chagnon was condemned by the American Anthropological Association, until it became evident that the grounds of their condemnation were unfounded and that the Association violated its own constitution, and so the condemnation was retracted, leaving the AAA in disgrace, where it belonged.

Given where anthropology is today, what justifications can we find for the hundreds of millions of dollars we ask to support anthropology departments and anthropological research? Can we, in all honesty, ask for allocations of scarce societal resources for the subjective expression and political posturing that seem to be the norm in anthropology today?

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Replies to This Discussion

Phil Salzman writes,

John points out that many state projects directed by political motivation lead to serious scientific discoveries. But can we say this of anthropology?

Shouldn't we be careful to distinguish research funded by political actors whose by-products may include serious scientific discoveries (one thinks of E-P doing research in the Southern Sudan in the middle of a colonial war but writing classic works on the Nuer and Azande) from research shaped by anthropologists' political motivations, which is prey to the flaws that Salzman describes?

How shall we deal, however, with situations in which one generation's "objectivity" is seen by its successors as ideological bias?
To continue with your example, John, Evans-Pritchard was a British agent in North Africa during WWII, acting, if I am not mistaken, as a liaison with the Bedouin, and he produced what is perhaps the greatest book of Middle Eastern Anthropology: The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Clarendon Press, 1949). To my mind, it is a remarkably well balanced book, as well as being insightful and informative about a number of different populations, their structures, and their relations. At the same time, it is an impressive historical case study of macro-change.

So the problem of politics is not so much in the sponsor or funder, but in the intrusion of political ideology and objectives in the anthropological research and reports.
sally applin said:
Tangentially, I wonder not if Anthropologists can cheat, but whether, when in corporate positions that require arbitrary deadlines, and stakeholder appeasement, that they do in order to survive in organizations.

What do you count as cheating? I ask because accusations of scholarly "cheating" typically arise in situations where the rules of the scholarly game are clearly defined. Thus, for example, an experimenter who fudges her numbers can justly be called a cheat.

But what of anthropology? When I was in graduate school I heard rumors of people who had gone off to do fieldwork but spent their time in hotels and bars, then wrote up dissertations based on bar chat and secondary sources. That would clearly count as cheating. But what of the researcher who discovers something that would ruin his informants' reputation or put them in actual harms way and decides on the principle "Do no harm" to suppress that information? What of the student of ritual who learns something that the people he works with want to keep secret?

More generally speaking, what happens when research moves away from classical approaches modeled on experimental science to interpretive story telling and the whole question of what should count as data, what should count as inference or speculation, what can be included and what can be left out becomes exceedingly problematic? What of the anthropologist who, feeling that ethnographic convention fails to capture something important writes a poem or novel instead of writing an ethnography?

Turning, then, to the corporate context. In my experience, primarily in advertising and marketing, corporate clients are not looking for scholarly research. Instead, they are looking for hints, for emerging or unexplored angles that suggest new product concepts or advertising messages. At least in Japan, where I live and work, quantitative research is meticulously documented; when numbers appear on Power Point slides, their sources are documented. A slide on research design is always included in presentations, spelling out sample sizes, sample composition, and the dates on which research was conducted. Cheating is easy to discover, and research suppliers who cheat are soon out of business. That may be why, at least in my experience, cheating is very rare.

Qualitative research is subject to similar constraints. Clients are invited to observe focus groups and supplied with raw transcripts of depth interviews. On-site observation usually takes place in well-known and easily accessible places and, these days, is documented with photos and videos. Again, opportunities to cheat are rare and, in my experience, cheating seems virtually non-existent.

At the end of the day, moreover, the goal is not, as it might be in the case of a new medical treatment or a new source of energy, to establish facts or theories beyond reasonable doubt. As noted above, the aim is hints, new angles, ideally fresh insights. Anthropologists are hired by corporations largely because business people believe that our odd training and sloppy research methods may enable us to come up with something new that conventional marketing research methods (the survey, the focus group, etc.) miss. In this context, the researcher may be lazy or incompetent and fired for failing to produce what the corporate client is looking for. What would count as cheating is, in my view, extremely hard to define.

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