The news that Barbara Sherwin has received only a reprimand from McGill University is distressing to me. In 2009, the story broke that Sherwin had published a paper written at least in part by a ghost writer who had in turn been hired by a pharmaceutical company. The paper appeared only under Sherwin’s name, and when the truth came out it was something of a scandal.
At the time, I pointed out that students who took credit for other people’s work are rightly penalized for such plagiarism and universities set a bad example if they don’t take academic integrity seriously among their own professors. In this case, where health research is being done, it seems especially clear that if a study is written at the request of a pharmaceutical company and payed for by that company, at the very least, that process should be made absolutely clear upon publication. Big companies should not be able to pretend that the research is not theirs by getting a professor to front for them. And professors shouldn’t play along. Two University of Toronto law professors have said recently that the practice amounts to fraud. We already have good reason to believe that when drug companies fund research, the results are more likely to say good things about the drugs. Are we really to believe that having drug companies secretly ghost write journal articles is not going to make the bias problem worse?
To be fair, McGill could have done less than it did. A formal reprimand is taken seriously in university circles, particularly because such things usually become part of a professor’s personal record. Even so, a reprimand is still only a reprimand. Imagine if a student found guilty of plagiarism was sent a letter saying “your plagiarism was wrong and you should not to do it again, but you still get an ‘A’ on your paper.”
The lack of more serious consequences for Sherwin is particularly troubling in light of the ongoing struggles of Gabor Lukacs, who was suspended for an entire term without pay because he fought for academic integrity (not to mention the rights of airline passengers). Sherwin violates academic integrity and gets slapped with a ruler? Canadian universities, it seems, can barely tell right from wrong these days.