Will Academia Waste The Michael LaCour Scandal

September 2015

In the wake of the explosive scandal surrounding Michael LaCour, the UCLA political science grad student who faces overwhelming evidence that he fabricated the data behind a highly celebrated, widely publicized study about how to shift gay-marriage attitudes published in Sciencelast December, the scientific community has a rare opportunity to reconsider its obsession with “clever young things” —and the professional pressures that create (and corrupt) them.

It’s tempting to argue, as some social scientists have, that the LaCour scandal is proof that the system works. After all, LaCour was caught, and it’s likely he will be drummed out of academia entirely. The Sciencepaper was quickly retracted once its author’s fraud came to light. But if academics are satisfied to view this incident as an anomaly that was effectively handled by a functional system of checks, it would be a regrettable missed opportunity. Because while scandals like this one are (mercifully) rare, the underlying issues in academia that likely fueled LaCour’s misdeeds and delayed their discovery need to be addressed.

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This habit isn’t likely to change anytime soon, so it’s important to clarify and underscore the responsibilities of senior collaborators. Faculty members are encouraged to treat their graduate student collaborators and advisees like colleagues rather than underlings, and mutual trust is a major part of that relationship. To move toward a culture in which senior faculty fact-checked every aspect of their students’ research would be to debase that trust. So the solution shouldn’t be to treat every graduate student like they’re the next Michael LaCour, but rather to inject these relationships with a little bit of skepticism —an ideal that is, after all, supposed to be one of the driving forces of academia. There need to be frank discussions in faculty meetings across the country about how easy it is to make stuff up and how to reconcile that fact with a necessary faith in one another’s professional integrity.

As the immediate aftermath of the LaCour scandal fades a bit, academics face a choice: They can see this as an unfortunate, one-off affair and get back to their own work, or they can take this opportunity to confront the systemic forces that lead to bad social science. It’s clear which of these options would entail more hard work and more painful conversations. It’s equally clear which one is right.