I read an interesting headline on ChronicleVitae.com: “Academic Ethics: Should scholars avoid citing the work of awful people?”

Undergraduate, graduate and postgrad students working toward completing papers and dissertations should find this short article most intriguing.

For the purpose of this column, ethics is defined as the academic study of cultural right versus wrong, of good versus evil. In our case, what should you do if the individual who conducted the research has somehow violated the ethical norms of either society (sexual misconduct) or academia (plagiarism)?

Author Brian Leiter, professor of jurisprudence and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago, suggests that “insofar as you aim to contribute to scholarship in your discipline, cite work that is relevant regardless of the author’s misdeeds.”

Of course, this view is not shared by all. Professors of philosophy from Notre Dame to the University of Sheffield in Britain tend to disagree with Leiter. Numerous quotes in the article declare that those accused of misdeeds, in most cases sexual misconduct, should be left out of the scholarly articles entirely. Yet known anti-Semites and Nazis are still being quoted regularly.

In order to maintain academic freedom, Leiter argues, one must be able to cite the works of those whose personal lives may reflect harmful, wrong, illegal or unjust behaviors. He continues:

“You should not — under any circumstances — adjust your citation practices to punish scholars for bad behavior. You betray both your discipline and the justification for your academic freedom by excising from your teaching and research the work of authors who have behaved unethically.”

Yet we have seen misconduct from the minuscule to the monstrous. In this age of #MeToo, we have seen too many professionals, academic and corporate, accused of, among other things, sexual misconduct. This does not mean that their research is somehow negated. Nor does the quality of one’s research equate to the personal ethics of that individual.

Unfortunately, many of the discussions about academic and personal misconduct result in negative impressions of the discipline or science.

According to a study found on JSTOR.org, we would be wrong if we were to equate the number of public reports of academic and personal ethical wrongs to the actual extent of academic dishonesty and personal misconduct. With few exceptions, we usually only hear about what is local or within our own discipline.

Yet there is no comprehensive study of how personal misconduct actually affects academic research. This study, done by Judith P. Swazey and her colleagues, does little in discovering the magnitude of the problem. They do show, however, the reality is greater than many believe.

Swazey’s study shows three main areas of research ethical violations:

Misconduct in the research, such as plagiarism or falsifying data.

Questionable research practices.

Other forms of misconduct that are not research related, including sexual misconduct by the researcher.

Yet her study deals with the discipline of the researcher whose misconduct is discovered, not the use of the research itself.

I tend to agree with Leiter; one should not dismiss good research even if the researcher is “guilty” of apparent moral misconduct. It would not be in the interest of the academic institution if otherwise good research is ignored because the individual did something that violates either societal or academic norms.

If there is a question as to the academic integrity of the work cited, then that may be noted within the dissertation. If the question goes to personal ethics, then a discussion needs to take place as to the validity of the research and the integrity of the paper you are writing.

When I was in graduate school, we spent a scant amount of time concerning ourselves with research and individual ethics. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, ethics was discussed in a small section of the basic research class. We spent the majority of our time discussing type of research acceptable to the university, research methods, statistical data and the development of our theories and hypotheses.


About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

This is definitely an issue you need to take up with your thesis adviser. Should you cite an author whose personal conduct has been deemed wrong by society? And if you do, should you make a note of the misconduct in the footnotes of the paper? Your answer depends on your ethics.

David Rosman is an editor, writer and professional speaker. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com and InkandVoice.com.

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