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On Integrity and Research Misconduct in Economics

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By Ioana Negru

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Research Association for Knowledge Integrity in Economics (RAKIE) Network (http://rakie.org/)

Most research methods textbooks, whether in business, economics or other social sciences, have a section dedicated to Ethics in Research. Research is widely viewed as a systematic and dynamic process that is based on trust, accepted conventions and the idea of ‘building blocks’, i.e. new research builds on previous research. Being ‘ethical’ when conducting research equates with conducting research in a responsible way. The areas commonly addressed in these contexts are: ethical conduct and professional conventions; treatment of animals in research; relationships between researchers, other researchers and the objects of their study.

In recent years, universities, associations and institutions have issued their own codes of conduct in research that contain rules about what is appropriate behavior when pursuing research. The essential term that is used is that of research misconduct or scientific misconduct. According to the Office for Science, Technology and Policy, scientific/research misconduct is defined as:

“as fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. Fabrication is making up data or results and recording or reporting them. Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record. Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit. Research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion” (http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_misconduct/foundation/index.html#1).

Researchers are expected to interpret data appropriately given general methodological standards and to report findings without bias; to explain the methods and processes used to gather and analyze data; to report potential errors and distortions in their publications or reports and so on.

The discussions around scientific misconduct have been more present in natural sciences than in economics and business. Karabag and Berggren (2012) in Retraction, Dishonesty and Plagiarism: Analysis of a Crucial Issue for Academic Publishing, and the Inadequate Responses from Leading Journals in Economics and Management Disciplines investigate the state of academic dishonesty, plagiarism and retractions within business and economics disciplines (using databases such as EBSCO, JSTOR, Emerald and Science Direct). The authors undertake a literature review and conclude that studies on academic honesty in economics and business can be divided into two groups:

“The first group focuses on plagiarism behavior among authors. Honig and Bedi (2012), for example, analyze papers submitted to the Academy of Management conference, and found that almost 1 of 4 papers contain some degree of plagiarism. The second group attempts to understand how journals are dealing with this issue. Enders and Hoover (2004) surveyed editors of economic journals about the nature of plagiarism and their strategies related to plagiarism.” (pp. 174)

In this study, authors mention also duplication and self-plagiarism as forms of academic misconduct in research. The conclusion of this study is grim:

“The analysis shows that management journals rarely retract papers, and economics journals do it at an even lower rate. Although there are many indicators of academic dishonesty and plagiarism among academicians and researchers in general, the leading business and economics journals’ response to academic dishonesty and plagiarism has been slow” (pp.179).

Evidently, further surveys and work need to be undertaken in the area of research misconduct in economics but there is a clear awareness of the need for discussions amongst economists regarding forms of scientific misconduct. The REPEC Database (Research Papers in Economics) has a Retraction Watch point for economics that is designed for documenting news about retracted papers in economics. The following post focuses on economics: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/09/19/economics-paper-retracted-for-plagiarism-after-citing-its-twin/

One can add examples such as Rheinhart and Rogoff and the flaws of deductive processes that assume causation between high debt levels and low growth instead of just recognising tendencies of economic processes within certain contexts (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-reinhart-and-rogoff-controversy-a-summing-up). Or one can point towards research on widespread misapplication of hypothesis tests and for statistical significance results due to a lack of appreciation of the ‘fallacy of the transposed conditional’ (Ziliak & McCloskey, 2008, p. 17)

In 2011, George DeMartino published the book The Economist’s Oath: On the Need for and Content of Professional Economic Ethics. In the book DeMartino argues for the importance of establishing a new field of critical inquiry that examines the ethical requirements of economic practice. In Chapter 1 of the book he states:

“The Economics Profession today has an enormous impact on the life chances of people across the globe: one that is far greater than that of most other professions. It is not always the impact that economists hope to have, to be sure, not least since economists’ prescriptions are often distorted in the political arena, but it is considerable nonetheless” (pg. 4).

And yet, as DeMartino argues, leading economists have not had five minutes training in what it means to be an ethical economist, or what it would mean for economics to be an ethical profession. Given the extent of its influence in the world, the failure of economics to engage its ethical duties and the ethical challenges its members face represents a gross professional ethical failure. In this regard, as DeMartino argues elsewhere, economics can be considered a “rogue” profession.

In August 2014, a group of economists led by Altug Yacintas, Ankara University and Wilfred Dolfsma, Groningen University, has organized the first ever workshop on research ethics in economics in Izmir, Turkey. A list of workshop participants is available here: http://rakie.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ConfirmedListOfParticipants.docx

The original CFP is available here: http://rakie.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/EconEthics2014_CallForPapers.pdf

This was a fascinating event which has generated debates  on research misconduct in economics and the responsiveness of the profession to such cases. As a result of this meeting, the participants of the workshop decided to form a pluralist network, RAKIE.org, established in December 2014. 33 members have subscribed to the RAKIE Network so far. Below, there is an excerpt from the RAKIE’s opening page:

“Rakie.org is a scholarly network set up by a group of economists who are concerned about the unresponsiveness of the professionals in economics to the significance of the problem of research misconduct. The purpose of the network is to reach economists who care about the economic science. At this early stage of setting up the association, we wish to expand our network and organise a larger workshop in 2016”.

We would like to invite economists, of all orientations and beliefs, to join us. We aim to provide a forum for discussion and generate debate to counter dishonest academic behaviour and to promote sound research practices in economics. The scope includes challenging accepted conventions and standards that are seriously flawed and produce misleading results.

To make contact or join RAKIE, go to http://rakie.org.

References:

S.F. Karabag and C. Breggren (2012), “Retraction, Dishonesty and Plagiarism: Analysis of a Crucial Issue for Academic Publishing, and the Inadequate Responses from Leading Journals in Economics and Management Disciplines”, Journal of Applied Economics and Business Research, JAEBR, 2(3): 172-183.

G. F. DeMartino (2011) The Economist’s Oath: On the Need for and Content of Professional Economic Ethics, Oxford University Press, USA.

Ziliak, S. T., & McCloskey, D. N. (2008). The cult of statistical significance: how the standard error costs us jobs, justice, and lives. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

From: pp.5-6 of World Economics Association Newsletter 5(4), August 2015
http://www.worldeconomicsassociation.org/files/Issue5-4.pdf

Download WEA newsletter Volume 5, Issue No. 4, August 2015 ›

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