Friday, August 26, 2011

Confronting professional and cultural ethics: Gwen Robbins Schug

BANDIT is very pleased to host Dr. Gwen Robbins Schug as a guest blogger. In her compelling and beautifully written post, Gwen recounts a difficult ethical dilemma involving both scientific and cultural standards that stemmed from recent fieldwork in India.

(Re-)Wrapping a Sacred Bundle
Gwen Robbins Schug

"Anthropological researchers bear responsibility for the integrity and reputation of their discipline, of scholarship, and of science. Thus, anthropological researchers are subject to the general moral rules of scientific and scholarly conduct: they should not deceive or knowingly misrepresent (i.e., fabricate evidence, falsify, plagiarize), or attempt to prevent reporting of misconduct, or obstruct the scientific/scholarly research of others." AAPA Code of Ethics

"Ethics in Anthropology is like race in America: dialogue takes place during times of crisis." Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2003:pg. 1).

As an archaeologist, it is my belief that knowledge about the past is essential to our present understanding and should inform our future actions. Recently, I was involved in a situation where a colleague violated scientific ethics, plagiarized a paper, and attempted to obstruct future scholarly research. The situation soon became a public spectacle. I was challenged to devise a response that satisfied all of my various commitments to being a professional scientist, anthropologist, colleague and mentor. The liminal space I occupy as a biological anthropologist, with the ethical responsibilities of a scientist and the philosophical sensibilities of an anthropologist, led to an outcome that can only be called "the best of a bad situation". For this reason, I share my experience.

The Unravelling
Recently, I received a research fellowship and I took a sabbatical. I left my job, as an assistant professor at a small comprehensive University in the U.S. and I traveled to India, where I was to do research on two very important skeletal collections for 6 months. I had received permission to study paleopathology and trauma in this skeletal collection from the Government of India, Anthropological Survey of India, and the senior physical anthropologist in charge of the collection (Dr. Y). After about 10 days of waiting and meeting with the Head of Office at AnSI and Dr. Y, I began my work. A former student had traveled to India to work with me and was also granted permission by the head of office and the senior anthropologist to work on the skeletal material.

We examined a small collection first and then we turned our attention to the skeletal material from a very important archaeological site, a collection that has never been scientifically studied. The day we began work on that collection, Dr. Y was not in the office but he had left instructions for us to begin with the glass case in his office. This case was full of skulls from archaeological sites around India. They were all facing to the left because the case was not quite wide enough to accommodate them. There were only a couple from the site we were working on so we pulled those out and took them to the lab.

When we sat down to work, it was immediately apparent that one of the skulls was a specimen with a suspected trepanation, which had been a subject of speculation in the literature for decades. There was a depression fracture on the right side of the skull. Just below that, there was a small hole with a raised margin that suggested it could be a trepanation. This skull had been described a few times in 20th century writings about evidence for trepanation in prehistoric India, including a mention in a paper written about trepanation at a different site published by Dr. Y 10 years earlier. However, the skull had not been examined and the trepanation had not been confirmed. When Dr. Y returned to the office later that week, my student and I immediately informed him that we had found the specimen and we requested a CT scan (because the specimen is covered with a lot of preservative and confirmation required more work. He immediately exclaimed that our entire trip to India had just been validated by this discovery because he had been "looking" for the skull for many years and was happy we would finally be able to report on this evidence.

This trepaned skull turned out to be only the first in a long series of important results, which will lead to several publications and may very well revise our current ideas about life in the Indus Civilization. To me, the evidence for trepanation was interesting but primarily my interest was in the larger social issues of interpersonal violence, medical intervention, and hierarchy in the Indus Civilization. In fact, this evidence in combination with evidence for interpersonal violence in several skeletons that we examined early on led me to submit an abstract on that topic for an invited session at AAA later the same year.

After six months of working in India, seeing Dr. Y regularly when we were both in the labs and offices at AnSI, two things happened that challenged the relatively easy working relationship I thought I had developed there. The institution has generally remained aloof to foreign scholarship and I was proud of the apparent ease with which I had gotten access to their collections for the second time in my career.... until one afternoon when Dr. Y came into the lab where I was working. He started up a conversation about the results of my study and he asked me if I had seen a trepanation in another skeletal series I had studied in the repository. Knowing of his longstanding interest in trepanation, I shared with him that although it had been previously reported that there was a trepanation in a child's skull from Kalibangan, I had already confirmed that the skull was damaged postmortem and no such evidence existed.

During the course of this conversation, I asked Dr. Y if he wanted to write a paper reporting the confirmation of the case of trepanation I had discovered. When my field work began, we had discussed authorship and agreed that I would be first author on any and all publications resulting from my research and he would also be listed as an author. That day, I suggested that he could write a case study on the trepanation because I knew of his long-standing interest in the topic. We had not discussed it previously because we had both been traveling a lot and had usually not been present in the lab at the same time, except for a brief period early in my project.

Dr Y seemed very pleased that he would be able to report this case study and he mentioned that he had already started putting something together on the topic. Although I saw this comment as a potential red flag because we had not discussed it previously, I did not ask him for clarification and I dismissed the brief uneasy feeling and went on with my work. In fact I finished my work that very day, packed up all of my equipment and research supplies that afternoon, and headed home to write my final report and prepare to return home to the US.

That night, Mr. X, a reporter from a major newspaper wrote to ask a few routine questions for a story he was writing about trepanation in prehistoric India. I was not certain how he knew about the finding so I immediately wrote to Dr. Y. I told him that although we had discussed a potential paper that he would write on the trepanation, and although we discussed making him first author on that potential publication, I preferred to keep research results from the media until after a peer reviewed publication appeared.

I then wrote to the journalist and told him that I am the PI on a research project to study trauma and pathology in this skeletal collection housed at AnSI. I told him that I had not written a paper on the evidence for trepanation and was interested to know how he had learned of this aspect of my research. I also told Mr. X that I was not interested in commenting on his story and did not wish to be included in his article as the story was communicated without my knowledge or permission.

These two events marked the beginning of an unravelling, a spiralling chain of events which revealed scientific misconduct, a serious breach of scientific ethics by Dr. Y and a lack of diligence on the part of editors at a leading scientific journal in India. It is a long story and I will spare the reader most of the detail. Basically, the reporter informed me at that point that he was quite confused by my email. A manuscript was already published online in the current issue of a respected scientific journal. I was listed as second author on the paper and he was simply writing to me to get a comment about our conclusions. He noted that he found it odd that my affiliation was not listed on the paper. He had already spoken with Dr. Y (who was first author) and he never mentioned that I was the PI on the project. He had simply stated that I assisted with the analysis. At the end of this earthshaking email, he said simply that he would like to write an article on the serious breach of scientific ethics that had obviously occured in this case.

What followed was a series of phone calls and emails between myself, Dr. Y and Mr. X. All of this resulted in an article being published in the newspaper that accused Dr. Y of a serious breach of scientific ethics. Once the article came out, I contacted the director of Anthropological Survey of India and the journal editor. According to the AAPA code of ethics, I had a responsibility to inform the editor that a contribution in his journal was plagiarized and had been published without knowledge of one of the authors. As anyone can imagine, this was a delicate situation.

Culture Conflict- science and anthropology
I had been included as a second author on a paper that was submitted for publication, peer reviewed, and published without my knowledge. The contents of the paper were plagiarized from my research. It was unavoidable that an article was published in the newspaper because the reporter was the one who informed me of my own publication (which obviously made him suspicious that a bigger story existed). And I was under ethical obligation as a scientist to inform the journal editor (Dr. Z) and the director of AnSI of what had happened, uncomfortable as that was. So, I carefully wrote the necessary letters and then waited to see what the response would be (keeping in mind my position as a foreign scholar, and a young female one at that).

Shortly after the newspaper article came out, basically everyone I knew in India called me. All of my friends and colleagues expressed support for me. They gave me advice on whom to speak with, how to handle myself, and when to sit quietly and wait for a response. Many of my American colleagues also called me to express support as well. One thing that all of these calls had in common was an almost immediate outpouring of similar stories, in India and in the United States. Most of these stories were from young, female scholars. Most of them were not cathartic moments.

The director of AnSI wrote to Dr. Y and demanded an explanation. In an email he wrote to me that Dr. Y's conduct was unethical and unacademic. Dr. Y's formal letter of response was inadequate and contained obvious fabrications. For example, Dr. Y claimed that he did not show me the paper before its publication because it was submitted from the field. On the published version of the paper, there was a date of submission that did not corroborate this story. As emails and phone calls flew back and forth and all over India (all the way up to the Ministry of Culture), the scientific ethical issues were clear. AnSI handled the entire issue with respect for scientific enquiry, investigating the matter and disciplining the scientist involved.

Dr. Z, the journal editor, had a different response. In scientific publishing, a charge of plagiarism is enough to retract a paper. Dr. Z did not wish to retract the paper, even though I initially requested him to do so. Although he had been given evidence to demonstrate that clearly Dr. Y had committed an ethical violation by publishing without my knowledge and although there was evidence for the plagiarism, Dr. Z wanted to publish an erratum and correct the authorship and affiliation details while leaving the paper intact. Now it was my turn to wrestle with the ethical issues, not the ethics of being a scientist but the ethics of being an anthropologist.

The "appropriate" response to a breach of ethics of this magnitude is clear. Within the scientific community in the United States, ethical violations are ideally handled immediately and thoroughly because every aspect of the scientific process is based on trust. Science is not the "Truth" but it is a set of claims about the world and the scientific literature is a permanent historical record of experiments, observations, and interpretations. As a society, we rely heavily on this record and most scientists and concerned people would agree that integrity is crucial to the process of science.

For this reason, there are reasonably clear ethical standards of practice in the United States. Not everyone lives up to those standards all of the time and thus our professional associations and institutions have written policies for dealing with misconduct. Gray areas can emerge about details of particular cases but ultimately errors in authorship should result in an erratum, plagiarism should result in retraction.

But what about anthropological ethics?
The editor of the journal expressed a preference for leaving the paper in the journal. I tossed and turned, night after night about the anthropological ethical issues of imposing my own standards for ethical conduct on someone from a different culture. Although there are guidelines for how to proceed when scientific misconduct is clear, there are no clear rules for knowing how to proceed when it becomes apparent that scientists from two different cultures have conflicting goals, interests, norms, and standards of scientific practice.

Dr. Z had a solution, his way of solving the problem fit within his own tradition and he did not wish to retract the paper. In a sense, I had simultaneously respected and violated a trust by calling attention to the situation. I felt scientific ethics demanded that much from me. As a consquence, Dr. Y had threatened at one point to restrict access for foreign scholars again and the situation obviously had the potential to negatively impact future anthropological and scientific research. Dr. Z clearly expressed his solution and although it was not what I wanted, I eventually decided that I had to respect his authority as journal editor and his reading of the correct response to an ethical dilemma. Basically, anthropological ethics suggested it was wrong to enforce my own view of ethical practice in scientific journal publishing over views expressed by a highly qualified scientific journal editor. In the end, I consented to the erratum and the paper was left in the journal.

Wrapping up
I would sum up the dilemma by evoking the interdisciplinarity of biological anthropology, which does not always easily straddle science and anthropology. As a PI, I am responsible for ensuring that the research is conducted ethically and this includes an ethical dissemination of the results. I found Dr. Y's article to be unprofessional and misleading in its claims to have 'discovered' the 'first evidence' of 'brain surgery' in India. More importantly, if I am aware of unethical conduct, I have a responsibility as a scientist to report that to the authorities in place. I have a responsiblity for the factual content of publications on which my name appears and I have a responsiblity to tell the truth when a concern is brought to my attention. When scientific literature is published, it is important for practical reasons that all authors have an opportunity to write, review, edit and respond to reviewer comments. If I said nothing about my name being placed on a paper without my knowledge or consent, I am tacitly condoning an unethical practice.

However, I also have a responsibility as an anthropologist to respect the solutions of people in the communities where I engage in research. I must carefully consider the social and political implications of my research and my behavior. I have a responsibility to be reflexive about my actions and to do no harm, including to future colleagues. I have a responsibility to "preserve opportunities for future fieldworkers to follow [me] to the field" (AAPA code of ethics). I have a responsibility to behave as a guest and to respect the views and opinions of my hosts, their concept of ethical behavior, and the consequences for violating those norms.

I think that the AAPA guidelines summed well the position of the biological anthropologist in a case like this one: "Active contribution and leadership in seeking to shape public or private sector actions and policies may be as ethically justifiable as inaction, detachment, or noncooperation, depending on circumstances" (pg. 2). In this case, I chose to do both. I was not silent about the ethical violations but I did not demand a particular resolution either. I tried to satisfy ethical obligations as a scientist while respectfully negotiating my position as an anthropologist. By speaking up, I took a stand that is impossible for many junior scientists (particularly women) who are vulnerable to abuses of power like plagiarism, discrimination, and sexual harassment. Through the anthropological perspective, I found a path that honored those vested with authority over scientific enquiry and publishing in India. I don't know if scientists and anthropologists would agree with the way that I handled the situation. I do know that I now sleep very well at night.


  1. The ethical issues are of tremendous importance here and I will use this as a current example of professional misconduct and the problems facing resolution when talking to my students.

    Unfortunately, I encountered a variety of questionable professional practices when I attempted to study that same collection for my doctoral research almost 30 years ago. As a graduate student (and a woman) I was in no "status" position to resolve anything, and, in the absence of any discussions of ethics in our profession at that time, I had no guidelines to follow. Because my time was limited for completing my program, I abandoned my proposed research and returned to the US to work (successfully) on something else.

    I'm really glad to read that Gwen resolved things to her satisfaction. That's what counts.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I know this particular collection has been an issue for so many people and I was lucky to get access and permission to publish on it at all!

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  4. Also, I wanted to commend you for standing up for what you thought was right. That can't be an easy thing to do as a junior scholar who wants to continue to work in the area. I'm glad to hear that the situation was resolved.

  5. Thanks for your blog posting, Gwen. I will be using this in my graduate class in two weeks when we address the topic of ethics.
    ~ Tosha Dupras