The following is a guest post by Jeffrey C. Isaac, the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
What constitutes important political science research? This question has been much discussed lately in connection with “When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality,” an article by Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green published in Science magazine.
The reason for the attention is straightforward: because the piece was apparently based on fraudulent data, the article has become a veritable scandal. In the face of strong evidence that the article’s lead author had engaged in repeated and willful misrepresentations, co-author Donald Green, a distinguished senior scholar, issued a retraction and dissociated himself from the piece, and Science magazine itself later followed with a retraction of its own.
Fraud is almost always a serious ethical infraction and in some cases it constitutes a crime. In social science, and in the scholarly disciplines more generally, fraud, plagiarism, and other forms of deliberate misrepresentation are particularly egregious.
Commentary on the scandal has centered on three questions: (1) how could LaCour behave in such an unprofessional manner, get away with it, persuade a senior scholar to sign on to tainted research, and have the work published in a top peer-reviewed scientific journal, without being exposed until after publication? (2) what kinds of collaborative research processes are involved in situations like this, involving scholars on opposite sides of a continent who are not well acquainted with one another, how common are such practices, and how common should they be? (3) what does this episode say about political science as a serious science that possesses the resources to critically evaluate and judge scientific contributions, to expose error much less fraud, and to credibly distinguish valid from invalid, and important from unimportant, knowledge claims?
Each of these questions is important. But I would like here to press a fourth: what is political science, such that its practitioners might believe themselves to have something interesting to say about politics?