Misconduct to be examined
By Andrea Lamberti
President Charles M. Vest and Provost Mark S. Wrighton have recently formed the Committee on Values to examine current attitudes and policies regarding academic misconduct at MIT. The announcement comes three weeks after a National Institutes of Health draft report found that an MIT researcher had fabricated data for a 1986 scientific paper.
Wrighton said the aim of the committee "goes beyond the concerns raised in connection with the NIH investigation, but that's certainly one of the areas about which we do have concerns." The NIH report, which was leaked to the press in mid-March, concluded that Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a former Whitehead Institute researcher, produced fabricated data for a paper and subsequent correction published in the journal Cell in 1986.
Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sheila E. Widnall '60 will chair the committee. Other members of the committee have not yet been selected.
The committee has a four-part mission, according to Wrighton: to review and articulate values MIT holds in the conduct of academic research; to examine MIT's policies and procedures in view of those values; to compare MIT's policies with federal and private guidelines governing research grants and contracts; and to suggest constructive changes in MIT's current practices.
Other, broader aims of the committee include raising community awareness of values connected with scholarly research, developing a mentoring process as people come up through the ranks at MIT, and strengthening communication between the Institute and incoming faculty members, according to Wrighton.
"I think when people come in to our community, we need to convey clearly our expectations," Wrighton said. MIT communicates its expectations well in certain areas, such as the guidelines for safe laboratory practices, but the Institute has not communicated its expectations on conducting academic research, he added.
Wrighton said it was "hard to say" if better communication would have prevented the situation at Whitehead that led to fabricated data. "We need to review the chronology of events and what actually happened there. It isn't clear that we could have done better; maybe we couldn't have," he added.
Former Nobel laureate and Whitehead Institute Director David Baltimore '61, now president of Rockefeller University, co-authored the paper. Previously a staunch defender of Imanishi-Kari, he asked for the paper's retraction last month.
Margot O'Toole, a former post-doctoral fellow at MIT and one of the paper's original challengers, said resulting institutional reviews of the research were flawed by "false and damaging" statements, misrepresentations, and the investigators' failure to press for the correction of the paper's false claims, which she characterized at the time as error, not fraud.
Widnall said a detailed investigation of the NIH report and the circumstances surrounding it was "extremely unlikely," citing the report's current unreleased status and the "limited amount we can learn from any particular case. . . . It's not our intention, nor did the provost ask us, to look at that particular case."
Wrighton also said the committee would not focus specifically on the Baltimore case. "This committee really has an eye toward future, [and] where should we be making improvements. We need to be more sensitive [to] the common feeling [on] these kinds of issues, and communicate more clearly what kind of expectations we have in these kinds of issues."
Widnall said the committee will address its four-part charge, and will issue an interim report by the end of the semester and a final report next fall. The outcome of the committee's work will "be perhaps a heightened sense of awareness in the community about these issue. . . . Faculty and students can perhaps come together on a field-specific basis to talk about these issues," Widnall said.
While the final report will be issued next fall, Wrighton said, "The issue will be ongoing." One example of a recurring issue, he said, is, the question of "what constitutes a good record of what was done" in a laboratory or research situation. It varies widely in different areas of research, Wrighton said.
A group of faculty members has been examining procedures "for dealing with allegations of academic misconduct" since Vest came to MIT, he wrote in a letter to the MIT community March 21, the day news of the NIH report first appeared in the national press. Wrighton said this group includes members of the Academic Council.
Wrighton explained that upon joining the administration in October, he and Vest realized that the issue of scientific misconduct was "something we might be facing."
In his letter, Vest wrote that faculty members have a profound responsibility to instill in new generations of researchers "the essence of scholarship and research, namely, objective methodologies and attitudes that demand the pursuit of truth with integrity and ethical rigor."