In the "Ethics in Science" course I regularly teach, students spend a good bit of time honing their ethical decision-making skills by writing responses to case studies. (A recent post lays out the basic strategy we take in approaching these cases.) Over the span of the semester, my students' responses to the cases give me pretty good data about the development of their ethical decision-making.

From time to time, they also advance claims that make me say, "Hmmm ..."

Here's one such claim, recently asserted in response to a case in which the protagonist, a scientist serving on a study section for the NIH (i.e., a committee that ranks the merit of grant proposals submitted to the NIH for funding), has to make a decision about how to respond when she detects plagiarism in a proposal:

The main purpose of the NIH is to ensure that projects with merit get funded, not to punish scientists for plagiarism.

Based on this assertion, the student argued that it wasn't clear that the study section member had to make an official report to the NIH about the plagiarism.

I think the claim is interesting, though I think maybe we would do well to unpack it a little. What, for instance, counts as a project with merit?

Is it enough that the proposed research would, if successful, contribute a new piece of knowledge to our shared body of scientific knowledge? Does the anticipated knowledge that the research would generate need to be important, and if so, according to what metric? (Clearly applicable to a pressing problem? Advancing our basic understanding of some part of our world? Surprising? Resolving an ongoing scientific debate?) Does the proposal need to convey evidence that the proposers have a good chance at being successful in conducting the research (because they have the scientific skills, the institutional resources, etc.)?

Does plagiarism count as evidence against merit here?

Perhaps we answer this question differently if we think what should be evaluated is the proposal rather than the proposer. Maybe the proposed research is well-designed, likely to work, and likely to make an important contribution to knowledge in the field -- even if the proposer is judged lacking in scholarly integrity (because she seems not to know how properly to cite the words or ideas of others, or not to care to do so if she knows how).

But, one of the expectations of federal funders like the NIH is that scientists whose research is funded will write up the results and share them in the scientific literature. Among other things, this means that one of the scientific skills that a proposer will need to see a project through to completion (including publishing the results) successfully is the ability to write without running afoul of basic standards of honest scholarship. A paper which communicates important results while also committing plagiarism will not bring glory to the NIH for funding the researcher.

More broadly, the fact that something (like detecting or punishing plagiarism) is not a primary goal does not mean it is not a goal that might support the primary goal. To the extent that certain kinds of behavior in proposing research might mark a scientist as a bad risk to carry out research responsibly, it strikes me as entirely appropriate for funding agencies to flag those behaviors when they see them -- and also to share that information with other funding agencies.

As well, to the extent that an agency like the NIH might punish a scientist for plagiarism, the kind of punishment it imposes is generally barring that scientist from eligibility for funding for a finite number of years. In other words, the punishment amounts to "You don't get our money, and you don't get to ask us for money again for the next N years." To me, this punishment doesn't look like it's disproportional, and it doesn't look like imposing it on a plagiarist grant proposer diverges wildly from the main goal of ensuring that projects with merit get funded.

But, as always, I'm interested in what you all think about it.