Systemic Explanations of Scientific Misconduct: Provoked by Spectacular Cases of Norm Violation?

Journal of Academic Ethics 20 (1):51-65 (2021)
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Abstract

In the past two decades, individual explanations of scientific misconduct have increasingly given way to systemic explanations. Where did this interest in systemic factors come from? Given that research ethicists often present their interventions as responses to scientific misconduct, this article tests the hypothesis that these systemic explanations were triggered by high-visibility cases of scientific norm violation. It does so by examining why Dutch scientists in 2011 explained Diederik Stapel’s grand-scale data fabrication largely in systemic terms, whereas only fifteen years earlier, in the René Diekstra affair, such explanations had been close to absent. Drawing on a wealth of historical sources, the article suggests that cases like Stapel’s as such do not explain why early 21st-century commentators exchanged individual explanations for systemic ones. Only against the background of an existing discourse of criticism of the science system, developed in the 1990s and 2000s in response to rapidly increasing competition for research funding, could the Stapel affair achieve notoriety as an example of how systemic factors provoke bad conduct.

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