Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’m not going to do this to death, partly because others will and partly because Churchill isn’t a scientist. But, given that I’m working the ethics beat at ScienceBlogs, I ought to give you the ethical crib-sheet:

  1. Plagiarism is bad.
  2. Self-plagiarism (that is, recycling stuff you’ve written and published before without indicating that you’re recycling it) is bad.
  3. Ghost-writing pieces for other “scholars” in what purports to be a scholarly anthology might be acceptable under some possible set of circumstances, but it’s fishy enough that it’s probably best presumed bad.
  4. Citing pieces you’ve ghost-written for such an anthology in other works you’ve produced without indicating that you’re actually citing yourself is bad.
  5. Citing pieces you’ve ghost-written using the author of record’s name as support for a point you are trying to establish (by making it look like other authors agree with your analysis of the facts) is very, very bad.
  6. The badness in these behaviors lies in their deceptiveness. Essentially, they are all different ways of lying to your audience and the community of scholars trying to build good knowledge in your area.
  7. Universities, as institutions charged with maintaining academic integrity, have a right to cut loose professors who engage in this kind of bad behavior. Indeed, if a professor habitually engages in these bad acts, the university probably has a duty to fire this bozo.

Beneath the fold, I approvingly quote Eugene Volokh. (Yeah, I’m surprised too.)

Volokh writes:

This isn’t a criminal prosecution, but the university’s decision whether to keep someone on its faculty; it need not keep a dishonest scholar on board, even if the complaints about the scholar were motivated partly by the complainers’ hostility to the scholar’s viewpoints. And as best I can tell, there’s little reason to think that the University wouldn’t have investigated Churchill had he been accused of the same misconduct but had expressed diferrent views. These are serious charges, and my guess is that most universities would indeed look into alleged multiple falsification of evidence and plagiarism by their faculty members.

There was a connection between Churchill’s politics and the investigation, but it seems to me much more attenuated than in the bumper sticker context. Churchill first attracted public notice because of his “little Eichmanns” comment. This led people to scrutinize his work, and past critics of his to repeat their criticisms. This in turn yielded the large body of accusations, large enough that the University had to take notice (in a way that it didn’t seem to have done when at least one of the accusations had been separately brought to its notice some years before). So the better analogy is if someone had caused a lot of controversy by his bumper sticker; this caused a lot of people to notice him, and in the process to notice that he was speeding; they in turn complained to the police officer; and the police officer gave him a speeding ticket. There, I think there’s no problem under Wayte; the government official (the police officer) wasn’t making the enforcement decision based on the bumper sticker, though the people who complained to the officer — private parties who have no viewpoint-neutrality obligation under the First Amendment — were motivated by the bumper sticker.

As the report points out, “public figures who choose to speak out on controversial matters of public concern naturally attract more controversy and attention to their background and work than scholars quietly writing about more esoteric matters that are not the subject of political debate” (p. 4) (emphasis added). That seems to me to be exactly what happened here. Unfortunately for Ward Churchill, it turns out that his scholarship couldn’t bear the attention that his statements prompted.

Regardless of Churchill’s political views, the conduct turned up by the University of Colorado’s investigation was an affront to academic standards. It was dishonest. So, he has to leave the community of scholars, because no one in their right mind can trust his scholarly output again.

It would have been nice if the University of Colorado had investigated the earlier allegations of academic misconduct. It would have been swell if the careful investigation that actual happened hadn’t been precipitated by a politically motivated firestorm. But given the facts in evidence, he has to go.


  1. #1 Bill Hooker
    June 29, 2006

    I approvingly quote Eugene Volokh

    Who are you, and what have you done with Janet?

  2. #2 CV Rick
    June 29, 2006

    Very nicely said. Churchill has to go . . . when one thrusts oneself into the role of a public figure, one must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. He engaged in outright deception and has no place in academics.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    June 29, 2006

    Thanks to Wikipedia, I could answer the two burning questions that this post raises: (1) who is Ward Churchill, and (2) who is Eugene Volokh?

    Now I just have to find out who this Dr. Freeride is….


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