The Seven Deadly Sins of Academia

Together with Åsa over at Ting och Tankar we developed a list of the seven deadly sins of academia. These are the things that kill science and harm those who work in academia. Our list includes:

1. Falsifying: Research is developed and builds on the past. A small error, left unchecked, can create misinformation and harmful practices. They are also incredibly embarrassing if they are caught out.

An infamous example of falsifying data is the fantastic Piltdown man. In 1912 amateur archeologist Charles Dawson found a skull at Piltdown and claimed it was the missing link between ape and man; he called it Eoanthropus Dawsoni. It was not until 1953 that it was proved that the skull and the jawbone was a mix of man and orangutan which had been chemically treated to appear old. Check out Six Notable Archaeological Forgeries in History at Socyberty.

2. Plagiarism: Plagiarism is the attempt to pass of someone else’s ideas as your own. Not bright, not smart and incredibly embarrassing. This is a popular subject in academia and I regularly lecture to students about the topic.

There are so many interesting examples of plagiarism. An interesting one is the case of the former German defense minister Baron Karl-Theodor von und zu Guttenberg who was forced to resign from politics when it was discovered that his PhD thesis was basically one big copy paste job. It wasn’t just plagiarism it was blatantly so. He even copied the introduction to his dissertation from an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. His excuses were many “…over 80 diskettes, and 4 computers, and 2 kids…” but that’s the point – a dissertation is hard work. Passing off someone else’s ideas as your own is not.

3. Sabotage: Sabotage: this is particularly nasty. Instead of attempting to do your own work you focus on destroying others. On the low end of the scale is not to inform others of work that you know they would need (just not nice). On the high end is physically disrupting their work by destroying files, data or planting false evidence in their data.

In a particularly nasty example of the latter a cancer researcher “… began noticing problems with her research materials: switched labels on petri dishes, errant antibodies dumped into her western blots, and several instances of ethanol in her cell culture media.” The police were contacted and hidden cameras were installed in the lab. The results were quick “Within less than 24 hours of being put in, one camera captured Bhrigu acting suspiciously. Under questioning, he confessed, saying that he was trying to slow the student down.” Read the full story: Lab sabotage deemed research misconduct (with exclusive surveillance video) at Nature News Blog.

4. Exaggeration: The actual work of science is not suitable material for a thriller. Scientists spend a great deal of their time reading, thinking and writing. Hardly the stuff blockbuster movies are made of. To make matters worse, science is rarely (if ever) about the big breakthroughs. It’s a collective, incremental process of small, small baby steps. There may therefore be a temptation to overstate the importance of one’s own impact.

An article by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz in Annals of Internal Medicine (5 May 2009) looks at press releases from academic medical centres made public in 2005. “On a careful look at these results, exaggeration was found to be more common in releases about animal studies than human studies. Out of the 200 releases, 195 included quotes from the scientific investigators: 26% of them were judged to overstate research importance.” British Lung Foundation.
5. Procrastination: This is the art of putting something off. It’s a deadly sin since it is the killer in academia. There can be no PhD student unfamiliar with its effects. It’s so important that there is even a patron saint (Saint Expeditus) to ward of procrastination (you can’t make this stuff up!)

The good thing about procrastination is that we are in good company.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English language dictionary, is a credible candidate. As his friend Hester Piozzi remembered, he did almost all of his composition last minute, including a famous essay about procrastination for The Rambler, which he finished while the errand boy waited outside to bring it to press. Or consider Richard Sheridan, a politician and playwright, who did Dr. Johnson one better; he finished writing the final act for his play The School for Scandal while it was being performed on opening night, bringing down lines piecemeal to the actors. And then there is Leonardo Da Vinci. Who among us is called out as a distractible, doodling scatterbrain by a pope? An exasperated Leo X exclaimed, “This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning.” (The Greatest Procrastinator in History Still Alive: Puts Off Death in Psychology Today)

What’s worse than procrastination? Apparently Perendination: To put off until the day after tomorrow.

6. Territoriality: Attempting to exclude research or a researcher by drawing boundaries around your own research discipline. This is a form of dogmatic attack against the work of someone you dislike. You do not belong here, you do not belong in our discipline, and your ideas are less valid since your undergrad degree comes from the wrong field.

Strangely enough the most common form of attack is to find an obscure theoretician within the field, often some great thinker to whom everyone refers (but few bother to read) and attempt to hit the invader over the head with.

A typical situation is to engage the opponent in a discussion on an obscure (and often irrelevant for the main discussion) point in the works of the great. The goal is to either get the invader to accept the speaker’s mastery of the subject – or even better an admission of ignorance! Ah the joy when the speaker can smile knowingly in shock and horror to signify that your discipline lacks all value.

I have written about this here.

7. Techno-Adoration: Whether it’s the Large Hadron Collider, a better hydrophone or a new laptop scientists love toys. They are necessary but can easily become an end to themselves. In the pursuit of science it is easy to image that we will get better results just as soon as we get a better machine. As science often requires expensive investments into special purpose tools it is not unusual for the pursuit of science to become the pursuit of the next new shiny toy.

My absolute favorite science toy must be the specially modified radio controlled helicopter designed to collect whale snot on petri dishes. Mind you, this toy helped Dr. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse win an IG Noble Prize in 2010.


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