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Scientific misconduct starts early

Julie Manoharan

Over 65% of participants at a Kentucky high-school science fair committed scientific misconduct. Should students be taught responsible research conduct in early science education?

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When two of his Kentucky high-school science students submitted a proposal to assess scientific misconduct amongst their peers, Skip Zwanzig was skeptical. “I thought it was just an excuse for them to get out of research,” said Zwanzig. “But when they brought their results to me I was floored.”

After Zwanzig approved the project, DuPont Manual High School students Tyler Smith and Michael Moorin distributed a research-conduct questionnaire to 100 of 500 students that participated in the region’s annual science fair. The questions focused on two topics: scientific misconduct and parental education and employment. They found that 65% of respondents had falsified data, 20% had altered their hypothesis after finishing their study, and 33% had abused the scientific method in some other way.

A survey of one Kentucky high school's science fair participants found that 65% of respondents had falsified data. Source: Flickr, DrBacchus

Furthermore, the boys found that students with parents who worked in science-related fields were more likely to advance to higher levels of science project competition than other students. This advantage is probably due to the lab access and additional guidance that researcher’s children receive, something that is difficult to come by for students with fewer connections, said the boys.

“We knew that there was a problem with the ethics behind [the science fair], and we wanted to quantify that because a lot of the teachers weren’t really aware of this and would kind of dismiss it,” said Moorin.

Zwanzig believes teachers were naive in assuming that there was no misconduct among student research, reflecting a social standard of permissiveness. In addition, Zwanzig thinks that students perceive these science fairs as a high-stakes competition, leading them to misconduct such as plagiarism.

“I don’t think the administration thought we would find anything,” said Smith. But after Zwanzig reviewed the study, he circulated it through other teachers at Manual to alert them to issues of scientific misconduct.

Zwanzig and his fellow Manual teachers are hoping to promote ethical research conduct during the school’s future science fairs. The boys’ study provided one possible solution: an ethics form that discourages scientific misconduct, which Zwanzig plans to include a ethics form next year. Additionally, Zwanzig will monitor the projects from conception to completion to avoid issues with hypothesis manipulation.

Keywords:  science fair misconduct