Trust Me

I’ve been thinking about trust a lot lately.

Maybe it’s because as we’re debating the mechanics of our campus honor code, we get more and more questions at the reference desk from anxious students about whether they’re broken a rule they don’t know about. When you have to swear over and over that you’re not doing anything wrong, you begin to think maybe you are a criminal.

Or maybe it’s because there’s so much gleeful “gotcha!” out there when someone prominent is accused of plagiarism.

Or maybe it’s because trust is so essential to how we academics work. According to the Chronicle, a review panel convened by editors of Science believes the peer review process needs serious revision, including conducting editorial “risk assessment” for papers that will get attention and requiring authors to provide more raw data. Is it really the review system that’s flawed, or the rewards system that leads to researchers hoarding their data and authors signing on to papers they didn’t write? I doubt we can fix one without addressing the other.

I’m struck by reading this article right after The New York Times lost an appeal to have the Supremes review Patrick Fitzgerald’s subpoena of their reporters’ phone records. (It’s a criminal case unrelated to the Valerie Plame affair, having to do an investigation into Islamic charities accused of funding terrorist activities – though Judith Miller is one of the reporters in question). For many reporters, the lack of a shield law to protect their sources and the aggressiveness of prosecutors are making it harder and harder to get the story, especially when access to government information is so constricted – but at the same time, developing a career based on cultivating confidential sources may tempt reporters to use sources who have their own agendas.

Doing good, honest research, whether it’s projects for college, scholarly research, or reporting the news, depends on caring about the truth more than any other reward (a grade, a grant, a byline on the front page). And all the honor codes and peer review guidelines in the world won’t create the trust that’s so central to making knowledge.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

One thought on “Trust Me”

  1. Libraries, at least my own, have depended a lot on “the honor system” to avoid having to enforce rules. But “the honor system” that might have worked in a small, face-to-face society like Westpoint or a small liberal-arts college, does not work so well in a large institution where most students don’t know each other.

    Similarly, we have moved from a small community of “gentlemen scholars” who knew each other, to a large mass of career researchers vying for scarce resources – attention, grant money, tenure. As for students, the temptation to cut corners may be stronger than any devotion to “truth and honor”.

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