- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

The paper trail of plagiarism turned up in a university faculty member’s Ph.D. dissertation, then in a job application and, eventually, in a proposal for taxpayer-funded research sent to the National Science Foundation.

Yet like several other researchers caught stealing information on government-funded foundation projects or proposals, the faculty member managed to avoid the embarrassment of public exposure.

The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) office of inspector general, which closed the case last year, is withholding the researcher’s name from public scrutiny, citing privacy interests.

In another recent case, a researcher plagiarized in at least three funding proposals and, once caught, claimed as an excuse the fact that “his non-native command of English made paraphrasing difficult,” case records show. His name, too, remains private.

Unlike the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), another federal agency that investigates scientific misconduct, the NSF inspector general withholds many of the identities of the researchers it catches engaging in misconduct, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The policy reflects a stark but little-known difference in the scientific community and in the federal government on the question of whether, and when, to name names in the wake of misconduct investigations.

“My position is that these are public agencies and public funding is involved, so there should be disclosure,” said Mark S. Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He said researchers found to have committed misconduct could do so again if the misdeeds go unnoticed by future employers. In their new jobs, these same researchers someday could be placed in positions of trust, such as supervising the work of graduate students, he said.

But others say the disparity between the two agencies’ policies might be a reflection of the sorts of cases they typically investigate. The NSF inspector general often uncovers plagiarism, while many of the ORI integrity cases involve fabrication or falsification of data, analysts say.

“It may have to do with the types of findings,” said Debra Parrish, a lawyer who has published scholarly articles on research misconduct. “Most NSF findings are premised on plagiarism. … [P]erhaps plagiarism, although not desirable, is not as worthy of public hanging.”

The NSF inspector general declined to comment on its disclosure policy, but noted that identifying the researchers in some cases would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, according to written responses to open records requests by The Washington Times. The inspector general’s office provided hundreds of pages of records to The Times, though the names of researchers were redacted in most cases.

There are exceptions to the policy, however.

The inspector general does identify researchers who engage in misconduct if they’re successfully charged criminally or civilly or if they’re currently barred from getting federal contracts — but, only then, by releasing the names in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Other federal inspector general offices follow similar guidelines.

But some serious misconduct investigations don’t result in debarments or court actions, records show. In those cases, the identities remain a secret.

Varied excuses

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