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MIT changes academic fraud policy

By Katherine Shim

A revised version of MIT's Policies and Procedures, a compilation of formal Institute policy, will be printed next week. This official policy manual will include a revised procedure that would address the problem of academic fraud and scientific misconduct.

The principle change in the academic fraud policy, according to Assistant to the Vice President for Research Charlene M. Placido, is that the new policy is more formal.

"Basically, the procedure is a two-step process," she stated. The first part consists of an informal inquiry and examination of the evidence, Placido said. "The second part involves formal fact finding."

"Previously, the informal inquiry did not require written reports. In the revised policy, formal reports and documentation that can be reviewed at a later date are required through all steps of investigation, whether informal or formal," she explained.

Attention has centered on the Institute policy toward fraud in the laboratories since a list of rules and regulations concerning scientific misconduct was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 8, 1989, by the Public Health Service, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. These regulations would apply to all research supported by PHS, effective Jan. 1, 1990.

Much of the research conducted at MIT is funded by the National Institutes of Health, an organization under the wing of PHS.

In a memorandum to all MIT faculty, Associate Provost and Vice President for Research Kenneth A. Smith '58 explained the reasoning behind the new policy. "Until recently, it appeared that scientific misconduct was nearly absent from the academic research enterprise. As a consequence, the scientific community did not have well-established procedures for dealing with the problem. Worse yet, several recent cases have been both highly publicized and badly handled."

In response to this circumstance, Smith said, the PHS has established "new regulations."

To assimilate PHS regulations into existing MIT policy, Smith led a group of people experienced in writing policy and adopted a "two-point format." According to Smith, the first part "is a generic statement which will be incorporated within the next version of Policies and Procedures. The second part is a supplement which contains the specific PHS requirements."

Drafts of both the statement to appear in the Policies and Procedures manual and the Supplement to MIT Procedures for Dealing with Academic Fraud were circulated to the Academic Council for review and input. Changes were further discussed at a faculty council meeting before the final copy was drafted.

Smith distributed copies of the revised policy on fraud to the faculty on March 13.

The supplement on academic fraud includes the formal definition of scientific misconduct, as advocated by the PHS. The supplement also describes a detailed procedure by which fraud would be investigated, including time deadlines by which investigations would take place and records of the investigation be kept.

The role of the Office of Scientific Inquiry of NIH in investigations is also described.

No relation to Baltimore incident

The revision of the Institute policy on academic fraud was in no way motivated by the incident in which outgoing Whitehead Institute Director David Baltimore '61 was accused of scientific misconduct for an article that he co-authored, which appeared in the scientific journal Cell in 1986, according to Smith.

Baltimore, upon review by agencies from MIT, Tufts, and NIH, was found to be innocent of charges of academic fraud.

"The revisions were totally unrelated to Baltimore," said Smith. "When we finished the report, some people commented that if the new policy had been around when the Baltimore incident was breaking, the events and investigations may have run smoother. However, our old policy worked well. The Baltimore incident was not a factor at all in the revision of policy."

Also, according to Marilyn Smith, assistant to Baltimore, the Whitehead Institute has its own separate policy on scientific misconduct.

The Baltimore incident, however, raised certain questions about the method by which investigation of scientific misconduct is carried out, notably the question of whether outside agencies like the PHS should play an active role in university investigations.

Smith addressed this complaint by stating, "Most members of the faculty believe that this system works best when we keep our own house clean. The new policy does recognize that inquiries should start here in the Institute. PHS does, however, reserve the right to intervene in the formal investigation process. But other institutions, unlike MIT, have not done well on their own. The requests of PHS are neither unexpected or surprising."