Adventures in Ethics and Science

Sadly, the Houston Chronicle brings us another story about an academic caught plagiarizing. The academic in question is Rambis M. Chu, a tenured associate professor of physics at Texas Southern University, who is currently under investigation for plagiarism in a grant proposal he submitted to the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Since the investigation is still under way, I’m open to the possibility that Chu will present some evidence to demonstrate his innocence here. However, should the facts reported in the Houston Chronicle stand up to scrutiny, this is shaping up to be one of those cases where the accused took leave of common sense.

From the Houston Chronicle article:

Chu is accused of copying a proposal written several years earlier by a physicist at the University of Houston.

John Miller, a physics professor at UH, said he had given a copy of his proposal to Chu after the younger physicist asked for an example of a successful grant.

“My intent, obviously, was this would be an example of how to structure it,” Miller said. “It obviously wasn’t my intent that it would be copied word for word.”

TSU declined the $800,000 research grant after discovering the similarity to Miller’s work, according to two faculty members familiar with the case. …

Chu, who was granted tenure last spring, described the issue as “a misunderstanding. I was acting in good faith.” …

Chu’s proposal is an almost verbatim copy of Miller’s, according to copies of the proposals provided to the Houston Chronicle. …

His proposal did not mention Miller or Miller’s work.

Applications by TSU faculty for research grants are supposed to be reviewed by the faculty member’s department head, dean and the school’s Office of Sponsored Research, according to a university source who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the issue. Chu’s application to the Army Research Laboratory did not go through that process, he said.

Set aside, for the moment, all the arguments you’ve heard already about why plagiarism is bad. Here, it seems to me, we can go right to the clues that plagiarism is dumb.

Chu asks Miller for an example of a successful grant proposal. Successful grant proposals are those that receive funding — Miller’s, for example, was funded by DARPA in 2002 and 2003. If the research project has been funded — by the government, no less — there’s a good chance someone has a copy of that grant proposal on file.

Which means that it won’t take that much to dig up that older, successful grant proposal for comparison to a newer grant proposal that sounds awfully familiar.

Now, as it happens, Chu’s grant proposal received funding from the Army Research Laboratory, which means it didn’t set off any alarms while it was being reviewed. However, in some ways it’s worse to have the problems turn up after the money has been granted than during the review process. Now it’s a big deal, with newspaper coverage of TSU giving back money that had been granted to it — money that comes from the taxpayers, by the way. And suddenly newspaper readers in Houston are wondering how many of their tax dollars have been allocated to research projects on the basis of dishonest grant proposals.

Even if you weren’t worried that the later proposal plagiarized an earlier one, you might well object to another $800,000 in public money going to support a project that, essentially, duplicated a project that was already paid for (with public money) and conducted. If the later proposal was an almost verbatim copy of the earlier one, there’s no reason to believe that the research would amount to anything but an attempt to replicate the results of the earlier work (which isn’t mentioned at all in the later grant proposal, of course). While it may well be the case that we’d be better off encouraging (and funding) more attempts at replication to ensure that reported findings are robust, replication is not what Chu’s grant proposal was promising.

It’s hard to imagine, if Chu had gone ahead with his proposed research, that the duplication would not be detected eventually. It might not be obvious from journal articles — since the research was aimed at developing ways to detect biological warfare agents, the outcomes might be considered “sensitive” enough that they were reported instead to the Army Research Laboratory (by Chu) and DARPA (by Miller). But the bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex notwithstanding, wouldn’t the odds be good that some Congressional committee or other might gather all of these scientific reports on responses to biological warfare threats? Might not some of these committee members be pals with Congress-critters on some committee or other concerned with trimming wasteful spending (which might include funding the exact same project more than once)?

Also, Chu did a postdoc in Miller’s lab. They probably travel in some of the same professional circles, go to many of the same physics meetings. At some point, wouldn’t the question, “What are you working on these days?” come up in conversation?

Even if you haven’t secured the funds with a plagiarized grant proposal, doing the very same research that your old PI did years ago doesn’t help your reputation as a grown-up scientist with his own ideas and research agenda.

I do not know whether the $800,000 grant from the Army Research Laboratory played an important role in HSU’s decision to grant Chu tenure last spring. What I do know is that tenure means that your employment cannot be terminated without cause.

If plagiarism is proven in this case, that could be cause to fire a tenured professor.

In the event that the inquiry determines Chu committed plagiarism and HSU does not fire him, Chu will probably still face significant consequences. These could include restrictions on his ability to receive grants from government agencies. And, undoubtedly, they would also include some fallout within his professional community, where he would have to deal with being regarded as dishonest — and dumb.

Comments

  1. #1 Coriolis
    October 30, 2008

    As someone working for a PhD in physics I find this really inspiring.

    If someone this stupid managed to get a tenure, there’s a chance for me yet :).

  2. #2 Pinko Punko
    October 30, 2008

    Not cool, Chu, not cool.

  3. #3 Robert Bird
    October 31, 2008

    It seems less than comforting (as hinted at above) that ARL couldn’t be bothered to check to see if anything like Chu’s proposal had been submitted (or funded) before. You might, after all, want to know, what your research dollars have done and what tools you might have to combat the threats against which you are supposed to act or tell others how to act.

    It isn’t a real good endorsement for TSU, either.

  4. #4 Andrew
    November 2, 2008

    I dunno about ARL having to catch it early… DARPA and ARL are separate entities and catches like this are probably only done during Inter department audits. I don’t really know how Chu is going to explain this though from what I gather from the article. If he is guilty then I bet he will be dismissed. TSU is probably going to get a bad rep with ARL for a while…

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    November 2, 2008

    What about the peer reviewers of the Chu proposal? Shouldn’t they be expected to be aware of what is going in their field? How could they not have realized that the Chu proposal was for research identical to that already being performed in Chu’s post-doctoral mentor’s lab?

    They deserve more blame than the funding agency.

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