In recent years, concern for questionable research practices (John et al., 2012) has risen, hand in hand with the so-called replication crisis in psychology (Murayama et al., 2013; Simmons et al., 2011). This has focused on statistical issues. Take, for instance, p-hacking, the practice of varying methodological choices and picking the one that gives the best outcome, generally being the lowest p-value (although the exact same problem would occur for any alternative statistical outcome, e.g., the Bayes factor, that can be manipulated). This has been successfully widely branded as misconduct, and disapproval of p-hacking has become a norm that can be communicated to students as part of their methodology and statistics classes. There are also non-statistical forms of misconduct, on which some light is already being shined, related to general social interactions. Bullying, for instance, was long tolerated – the “star” researcher, the “top talent”, sometimes being given leeway in their mistreatment of students or post-docs (Cassell, 2011; Chu, 2018; McKay et al., 2008). The bullying problem has reached mainstream media, in articles such as “We need a bigger conversation about bullying in academia” (Anonymous, 2018b). Sexual harassment in academia has also long been recognized (Fitzgerald et al., 1988; van Roosmalen and McDaniel, 1999) and remains an issue, also being brought to light in publications outside academia such as the article “As a young academic, I was repeatedly sexually harassed at conferences” (Anonymous, 2018a).
There is however a further, subtler but nevertheless harmful, form of academic social misconduct, here termed questionable collaboration practices (QCP). The term QCP is intended to cover a broad range of related forms of intellectual exploitation and plagiarism. Rather than involving statistical misconduct or general antisocial behaviour, QCP is misconduct specifically related to the social aspect of doing scientific research, for which the overall term “collaboration” is used here. Formulations of general ethics concerning collaboration have been articulated in, e.g., the Montreal Statement on Research Integrity in Cross-Boundary Research Collaborations (developed as part of the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity, 2013) and the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (Resnik & Shamoo, 2011), but issues surrounding intellectual exploitation do not appear to be widely recognized as requiring specific attention and labelling (Martin, 2013, 2016).
Science at every level involves collaboration: all researchers build on others’ work and require the often somewhat selfless contribution of peers – from laboratory know-how passed on via experienced technicians or researchers to voluntary peer-review and editing to multi-centre, years-long research projects. This cooperative, trust-based fabric stands in sharp contrast to competitive, winner-take-all academic systems (Van den Berghe, 1970; Woolston, 2014; Xie, 2014). An individual playing the academic game is incentivized to improve their chances to survive and win in terms of their career, via whichever metrics the score is kept; and this is inherently to the detriment of the chances of others. That some academics in some sense cheat at the game has been described as a commonplace observation: “The point that merit sometimes takes a backseat to more unpalatable considerations in advancing academic careers is hardly an original observation. Indeed, made merely as an offhand remark, it would seem little more than a commonplace. It is implied when someone is referred to as a sycophant, intriguer, or poseur” (Lewis, 1975). One way to win the game via cheating is to exploit others, i.e., QCP. The idea of the wily hustler, manipulative organizer, or dominant group leader exploiting talented but vulnerable students or researchers is likely not unfamiliar to the reader. While anecdotal evidence of such interactions abounds, hard data seem more difficult to come by. This could be related to lack of recognition or labelling of the behaviour as undesirable – once the problem is acknowledged, research efforts could be devoted to its prevalence and consequences. Clearly, even if exploitative strategies are common and effective, they should be normatively undesirable, being for one thing a form of plagiarism – one person is aiming to unfairly profit from, and ultimately get credit for, the work or abilities of another. The ability of the current academic system to protect itself and students from misconduct will realistically always be limited. Educators need to respond adequately to this reality. To do so, students need to be taught strong norms concerning the concept of QCP and exploitation, presented as a matter of course during their studies in the same way that they are, for instance, made aware of p-hacking being unacceptable. Such norms obviously may not fit all academics’ agenda. As will be clear, there is an uncomfortable friction between anti-exploitation norms and the winner-take-all system and the associated widespread use of (PhD) students and post-docs in a hierarchical lab structure. Nevertheless, it appears difficult to deny that at the least, students need guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of working with or for other people. This is a special responsibility for educators who could be, as it were, cursing students with competence, that is: We want to make students good researchers with strong skills – but that makes them targets for exploitation as well. Teaching research skills must therefore go hand in hand with teaching the ethics of collaboration and social self-defense skills.