March 5, 2005

On academic fraud and credentials

In response to one of the allegations swirling around Ward Churchill, Ralph Luker has a poignant and thoughtful story about Martin Luther King and Luker's mentor at Drew University that raises some good questions about academic credentialism. I'm not sure I agree with Luker's conclusions, but he's right to point out the mote in our own eyes.

No, this isn't my promised entry about Churchill—I looked at my obligations this weekend and have to scramble to catch up with a bunch of work. But since Luker used a personal story as a counterpoint to Churchill, I'll explain briefly why I'm hesitant to wade into the argument over academic fraud with free-swinging arguments.

Some years ago, a very close friend in another field was accused of fraud. There was appropriate debate over her research—did it really hold, were there extraneous factors that she wasn't considering—but then there came allegations that her conduct went far beyond the normal human frailty of research. She had just made it up, two researchers said. Her university conducted an investigation—a very long drawn-out affair, in which she needed legal representation to make sure due process was followed—which supported my friend's account. On some investigation, it turns out that at least one person who had made the allegation had a record of accusing other researchers of fraud. If my friend hadn't had tenure or hadn't used legal representation, her career would now be over. As it is, she spent thousands of dollars on lawyers, and she has largely soured on conducting the type of well-funded research that she made her name on, all because some academic yahoos decided to screw her over with loose allegations of academic fraud.

Fraud certainly exists, but it's not something to be judged through the blogosphere. I'll be darned if I'm going to play games with someone's career based on news reports and blogging.

(For obvious reasons, I've fudged some of the details to protect identities.)

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Posted in Academic freedom on March 5, 2005 8:28 AM |