As part of my faculty preparations, I have been required to take a web course in research ethics. Let me begin by saying that ethics in research are the single most important thing to me in the lab, and they are things which I strive to imbue in others. I do not tolerate academic cheating, nor would I tolerate the fabrication of data, plagiarism, or any other such practice that cheapens or distorts the scientific process. I am glad that SMU requires all researchers to take and pass this class if they want to submit proposals through the Research Office. I encourage other institutions to do the same, at every level – students AND faculty.
That said, I want to comment on some observations I made about the class that SMU offers. It’s run by a third-party, and SMU clearly pays for the right to offer the course to its faculty. I started taking it yesterday. There are about a dozen required units, and you have to take four additional elective units. You must have a grade about 80% (on average) to pass the class.
The first unit was about mentoring. It defined the role of a mentor, the expectations of a mentor, and the expectations on a trainee seeking a mentor. It was actually pretty good reading. However, I noted two things in the module that stuck me as a little . . . odd.
The first was spelling and grammar. The module wasn’t well-written. The module was all about setting standards through words, actions, and behavior. It made statements like, “If a mentor argues for rigorous authorship criteria, but fails to follow his or her own advice, then lessons learned by the trainee may include that the mentor is an unreliable source of information and that the standards of conduct in research are poorly defined.” The module then, just paragraphs later, had this little grammatical gem:
“Too stimulate mentoring activity, . . . ”
I’m pretty sure that’s a textbook case of failing to set a good example by your own actions. Being lectured about being a good mentor by a text with mis-spellings, bad grammar, and poor writing was ironic, at the very least.
The second observation was a deeper one. The module presents examples of situations of bad mentoring, or stories of ethics compromised by pressures from poor mentoring, through movies and “case studies.” The first example focused on two grad students, both women, feeling abandoned by their male advisor. After failing to get an award because the mentor won’t advocate for them, one student commisserates with the other about their experiences. Is it gender bias? Is it bad mentoring? The audience is left to guess.
In the other case studies, a female grad student needs to find a replacement member for her thesis committee. She picks a male, untenured assistant professor. We don’t know the gender of the other members of her committee. The case focuses on the struggle the male professor feels when he has to judge the quality of her proposed work. Her proposal appears poor, but is he making the right decision if he turns down her proposal? In another study, a female post-doc’s research is ripped off by her male boss. In the next study, a female grad student discovers her faculty advisor plagiarizing and is told that she shouldn’t worry about it, that it’s “no big deal”. In another case study, a female student’s dissertation work is published before results are actually ready so that her male boss can secure grant funding for their lab.
See a pattern? What the hell! While I am very willing to accept that women in these positions face a much worse set of situations than their male colleagues, the message coming across from this course is that every situation involves a women in a subservient position to a male whose ethics are challenged by the male, whose work is stolen by the male, whose values are cheapened by the male. I don’t think this is what the course meant to teach, but that’s what it’s teaching.
It was after the fourth consecutive movie/case study that I got concerned (the sixth case study did actually involve a male grad student). While abuses of younger researchers might more often involve women than men, abuse can go all ways and there are male researchers who are asked to do outrageous things by their mentors or advisors. It would have been nice to see one situation early in the module that I could directly relate to, without needing to adjust my own gender schema to read for subtext.
Courses should speak to people. In total, 6/7 of the movies and case studies in the mentoring chapter were women abused my men. As a male, it would have been nice, early in the course, to read one case study of a male student and one of a female student abused by their mentor or advisor. It would have allowed me to immediately bring my own experiences and values to the table, rather than having to calibrate constantly to make sure I wasn’t missing a gender-bias subtext in the story.
I did do another module in the course yesterday. It, too, had case studies focused on women abused by men.