Texas Tech University

Defining Success

By Marianne Evola

A recent interaction with a student at a presentation on responsible research has inspired some thought about the meaning of success in academics. During the presentation, I briefly presented some notorious case studies of research misconduct and was addressing how “pressure” often underlies bad research choices, which can progress to research misconduct. Promptly, a student disagreed, asserting that he believed a desire for success was more likely to explain cheating and misconduct. Furthermore, he pointed out that in each of these cases studies, the guilty parties had been highly successful at the time that their misconduct was detected.

Ignoring the fact that a desire for success is a big part of self-imposed pressure, the student’s assertion stunned me for a moment. From my perspective, I would never have described fraudulent researchers as “successful.” In my mind, they were liars and frauds and had done serious damage to the reputation of the research community, and I did not equate that with success. However, the student had a point. Each of these individuals had been at the top of their respective fields when their misconduct was discovered. I would not agree that they were successful scientists, because science is about truth, and you cannot contribute to truth by lying. However, each individual had positions of prestige, a lucrative career and admiration of peers before their fraud was discovered. So perhaps a better description would be to call them “successful frauds.”

Since that encounter, I have been thinking about success, what it means to be successful and how the definition of success differs greatly amongst people. My image of success stemmed from an inspirational black history month lesson when I was in the third or fourth grade. For the record, I have never fact-checked this story, and I don’t want to check it. Sometimes inspiration is more important than facts. Anyway, included in a small collection of booklets that were used in the lesson was one on George Washington Carver. The booklet stated that after his death, a pile of uncashed paychecks had been found in his home. He had been so consumed by his research and academic activities that he had never bothered to cash the checks. He found his work more rewarding than financial gain. This was my first exposure to the idea that success can be measured outside of financial gain. If chosen wisely, one’s work could be the best measure of success. Thus began my desire for a career that was inherently rewarding.

Now, just to be clear, I am not knocking financial gain as a benefit of success. In the best of all worlds, one finds their work rewarding and also receives financial rewards for their sweat and ingenuity. Furthermore, it is hard to deny that in many industries, a desire for financial gain drives creativity and productivity. However, it is of concern when superficial rewards such as money and prestige outweigh honor and integrity. Especially in academic careers where honor and integrity are critical attributes for inspiring the trust that is essential to advancement of research and scholarship. Arguably, honor and integrity are a better measure of one’s research success than monetary gain.

As such, an academic career is unlike most professions. Students are often well vested in their graduate studies before they realize how unusual an academic career is, as compared with other jobs. Academics invest a large amount of time, money and debt into advanced education and degrees without any promise of a financially lucrative career. For many disciplines, this massive investment is an investment for love of learning rather than a promise of financial gain because career opportunities are often difficult to attain when their education is complete. The Chronicle of Higher Education frequently runs stories about people with doctorate-level education who struggle to survive because of a limited job market. Many students learn of these career challenges while they are in graduate school, yet they still choose to invest in their education and follow their academic path to their preliminary success of completing an advanced degree. Field researchers and students often live in very rough, even dangerous, conditions while collecting data in the field and do so without any assurance of financial gain. Finally, even for academics with financially lucrative careers, their income is often notably lower than other professions, when the amount of education, effort and extremely long work hours is assessed. Thus, as a community we measure success in very different ways than many people.

Interestingly, the general public often assumes that financial affluence accompanies academic accomplishment. I remember when I was in graduate school, a junior faculty member and personal mentor educated me on the importance of not revealing your academic title when shopping for a new car. He informed me that a car salesman would assume that you had money if they saw a Ph.D. associated with your name, and thus would be less likely to give you a good deal. I seldom shop for cars, so I have no idea if this is true. But I do agree that people outside academics make incorrect assumptions about the income of academics. As such, for students interested in pursuing an academic career and who lack a family history of advanced education, there is often discrepancy between their expected income upon graduation and reality. As such, it would probably be beneficial to address undergraduate and junior graduate student expectations and definitions of success as early as possible.

So, what does one’s ideal of success have to do with research integrity? Well, as the insightful student pointed out, a desire for success underlies our decision making. As such, our definition of success relative to our chosen career can impact our choices, and thus impact the academic community. If we define success as an honorable academic career, our self-imposed pressure for success will prompt honorable choices. However, if our definition of success is money and prestige at all costs, we will be tempted to make questionable and potentially unethical decisions when faced with a difficult choice. In addition, even honorable students can get caught up in the competition and race for success. I have had quite a few undergraduate assistants pursue medical education. They have all been highly intelligent students with honorable career goals. But at some point, most of them have been so focused on jumping through hoops to get accepted to medical school, that they forget that their science education is central to being an effective physician. And as such, spending the time to understand their coursework is critical to being a good doctor.

Because a student’s definition of success can impact their ethical decision making, it is critical to provide mentoring and guidance with regard to measures of success in research and scholarly careers. Mentoring is such a complex mission. Some of the guidance a mentor provides is obvious, such as instructing students on research techniques for data collection. However, there is so much more abstract guidance that mentors need to provide students to promote honorable academic careers. I hope that the mentor of the student that inspired this article was present in the audience during my presentation. I think that student could use some guidance on the definition of success in research. However, I also encourage all mentors to spend some time at lab meetings to address definitions of success and how student misconceptions could impact their research decisions and research careers.

Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger. Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.