Under Discussion: Flagging Books, Articles with Integrity Issues as a Lesson in Complexity

This week, collib-l featured several posts about how to deal with books from reputable publishers when they have been found to contain plagiarized content. Two schools of thoughts emerged:

  • One encouraging pulling items off the shelves
  • The other advocating keeping the items, perhaps in a special section, together with the letter from the publisher about the content, as a learning tool.

Participants in this discussion acknowledged such situations do not arise very often, but it did remind me of a teaching situation this past semester in which I, in a one-off instructional session, showed students an example of research misconduct (an official U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Research Integrity case) using an article flagged as “retracted” in its host database. The case study was an extremely compelling learning tool and provided students with an example of short-term decision making which had long-term implications. Because of this, I really like the idea of keeping items with integrity issues on the shelves, clearly noting the academic integrity issue, as a way to show students “real world” examples of ethical issues in practice.

The discussion also spurred my contemplation about the realm of thought our research group is currently investigating, which I’ve christened in my own mind as “The Wild West of Individual Science Communications Decision Making.” As I write this, it seems to me there are three broad, greatly simplified conceptual areas in which individual (science-related) decisions are made:

  • Decisions about research areas formalized in content (often peer-reviewed) made by scientists for other scientists.
  • Representations of this content written by scientists or journalists for the general public, varying in level of trueness to original content and in format (e.g., press release, blog, social media post). Decisions are made here by scientists or journalists in crafting the secondary representation(s).
  • Individual representations/interpretations within the minds (note: I’m undecided at present about a better way to say this) of those reading or interacting with secondary communications about topics, themselves discovered and read in a variety of settings within a communication environment (or multiple environments). These individual “frames” are then – potentially – used or modified whenever future decisions (career, personal) touching upon a topical area are required.

At each of these places, there is room for “pollution,” as Kahan (2017) puts it, leading to an erosion of the power of “free, reasoning citizens to recognize valid science, and hence to fully realize its benefits” (preprint version, 11). Sometimes, the scientific and environmental “certifiers of truth” (researchers, journalists, publishers, libraries) fail – and when this happens, individual decision makers are left to their own devices in interpreting truth. This is the frontier, the Individual Decision Making Wild West.

Turning back to the collib-l discussion, it seems to me as I write this that it’s important to keep items with academic integrity issues on the shelves, in the databases – but to highlight any problematic areas. It’s maybe one small way to help students develop their thinking in relation to ethical issues by exposing them to complexity and failure points of scientific research and publishing in order to, perhaps, help them when they reach  decision making frontiers in the course of their careers and personal life journeys.

Additional Reading

Kahan, Dan M., On the Sources of Ordinary Science Knowledge and Extraordinary Science Ignorance (June 13, 2016). Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (Forthcoming); Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 548. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2794799




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