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Help! Ethically Questionable?


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I'm applying to a highly competitive PhD program in the social sciences that requires between 3 and 5 letters of recommendation. I have 4 letters from my MEd program (from a mediocre public university). Given the following information, should I seek out a 5th letter of recommendation from my undergraduate institution (a fancy liberal arts college)?

My undergraduate thesis was given a barely passing grade because of "ethically questionable content." Recently, I spoke on the phone to a professor from the department that I respect and she said that she could write me a glowing letter, remembered me to be a very strong student, but was ethically required to discuss the department's concerns regarding my thesis.

Let me explain. During my senior year I engaged in a year long ethnographic research project involving human subject. The first semester was spent drafting a proposal (which was whole heartedly approved) and beginning research, and the second on finishing research and writing. My advisor left on maternity leave after the first semester (though she was unavailable prior to that anyway), and was replaced by a visiting professor with no prior advisory experience.

The focus of my research was on a group of people who held very strong views regarding sexuality and mental health. This community of individuals coalesced around a mutual desire to dismantle taboos surrounding open discussion mental health disorders and sexuality, and felt empowered by taking ownership over this firmly held belief. Fascinating stuff - but totally inappropriate for a supposedly IRB exempt undergraduate research project.

Being a naive undergraduate student I proceeded with a vague sense that I was heading into problematic terrain but not fully aware of the magnitude of my ethical breach. I approached my advisor on several occasions asking for guidance regarding how to proceed given the content of my thesis, and each time she reassured me that I was on the right track. She even once said, "You're one of the strongest students in this department. I'm sure it will be fine." I asked her to read a draft a month and a half before the thesis was due and she declined stating that she didn't read drafts. I submitted my thesis expecting it to be well received.

Then, 2 days before graduating, I was called into an emergency meeting to discuss the ethics of my thesis and the status of my eligibility for graduation. I was told that my thesis was profoundly unethical, and though very well researched and written, deserving of only a just barely passing grade. I would graduate, but stripped of any hope I had had of academic honors.

I felt, and still feel, humiliated, ashamed, angry, and betrayed. Yes, my work was unethical in the IRB sense of the word. Yes, I should have done more research into what it meant to be IRB exempt. Yes, the grade I received was warranted given the content of my thesis. But, is my undergraduate institution not complicit in all of this? Given that I was a 21-year-old undergraduate student attempting research for the first time, why wasn't I properly advised? What kind of institution refuses to read a student's draft? It's bad enough that this terrible grade will forever be on my transcript, but I'm now further haunted by the experience because my institution feels "ethically bound" to discuss my breach of ethics in any letter of recommendation they write. What about THEIR breach of ethics?

Back to the question at hand: Do I ask this professor to write me a letter? She says she can frame my thesis disaster as a learning experience and highlight how much I've grown from the experience, but gave no hint of an intention to acknowledge some degree institutional responsibility. Would this experience, presented through the eye of my professor, ruin my chances of being admitted? Will not having a letter from my undergaduate program raise red flags? What should I do?

Sorry this is so long.

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I would stick with letters from your MEd program. The lack of a letter from your undergraduate institution might raise red flags, but the letter you described will also raise red flags. In fact, it will do so in a much more concrete way than someone who might wonder why you didn't submit a letter from any undergrad professor.

If this comes up in any interview or conversation with a potential advisor, you should be very careful about how you frame this issue. It sounds like you've learned a lot and accept responsibility for what happened, but you still look for blame in the institution as well. It may be the case that you should have been better advised; but I would not bring that up directly since it might be perceived as making excuses. You can describe the advising situation and the state of affairs that led to miscommunication or misinformation, but let whoever you are speaking draw their own conclusions about who's responsible for what happened. I'm sure that the visiting person who was put in charge of your project mid-way through was also not thrilled about the situation, and might very legitimately not have been aware of IRB approval procedures at your institution; it's unfortunate that this person also prefers not to read students' drafts but that too happens on occasion and again I'd be wary of making that be the explanation for what went wrong.

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In order to be considered for Exempt (Level I) status, research must fall into one of the categories listed below...

3. Survey/Interview Procedures.

Research involving survey or interview procedures with legally competent noninstitutionalized adults, except where any of the following situations exist:

  • responses are recorded in such a manner that the subject can be identified, either directly or through identifiers linked to the subjects;

  • the subject's responses, if they become known outside the research, could reasonably place the subject at risk of criminal or civil liability or be damaging to the subject's financial standing, employability, or reputation within the community;

  • the research deals with sensitive aspects of the subject's own behavior, such as illegal conduct, use of alcohol, drugs or other addictive products;

  • questions that ask about sexual attitudes, preferences, practices;

  • questions that request information pertaining to a subject's psychological well-being or mental health.


While I don't think what I did was immoral (counter to my own sense of right and wrong), it was unethical (it didn't abide by the rules laid out by the IRB). The role of the IRB is to decide what is ethical in research-subject interaction so that the researcher's position of power and individual interpretation of "morallity" doesn't put subjects at risk. For example, a scientist may think that it is morally justifialble to kill thousands of people in pursuit of a medicine that will save millions, but it's still unethical.

Now, whether or not the IRB's definition of what is ethical is always in a subject's best interests is a whole other can of worms. It was unethical for me to not seek IRB approval, to engage in interviews where subjects disclosed information about their sexual practices and mental health, and it was unethical of me to include enough information about my subjects for them to be identified. If my thesis were ever to be subpoenaed - and it could be - then some of these details could come back to haunt my subjects. The IRB presumes that subjects do not always know what is in their best interests, and it is therefore the researcher's responsibility to keep them safe.

But being unaware of all this at the time, I opperated based on what seemed moral. And it felt moral to honor their wishes to discuss their sexuality and their mental health, and be identified by name. They're stance was that if I was going to study them, they should be empowered to show me who they really were and have some ownership over that by fully disclosing their identity. They did not see themselves as the vulnerable population IRB would have classified them as. But, as the researcher, I should have known that their full disclosures would have put them at risk in ways they could not foresee.

Edited by Jensen12
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Cup o'Joe, thanks for the advice. You're absolutely right that I need to think more about how I will frame this issue if it comes up in the admission process, and I like the idea of sticking to the facts and letting the department come to their own conclusion. I'm leaning towards not asking the professor to write a letter, but I still feel conflicted because I had been a very strong student outside of that experience. If she does write a letter, I would obviously have to address the issue in my SOP as well, and then I imagine it would become the defining feature of my application. I'd become the Reformed Ethically Questionable Applicant. I really don't want that to be my most salient quality.

One more brief rant - Yes, I screwed up. But undergraduates make mistakes. I didn't cheat or plagiarize or intend to do harm (and did not harm - the people I worked with loved the thesis, though I realize that's beside the point), but this whole ordeal throws my character into question in a way that doesn't seem fair. I was naive and overly ambitious, not dishonest or malicious. Had I had the information I needed to do the job ethically, I would have, but I didn't have that information at the time. If I ever end up advising undergraduates you can bet I'm going to be the most involved, compassionate, and demanding advisor they'll ever have.

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Don't submit the letter, it'll draw too much attention and require further justification. Regardless of whether what your undergraduate institution did was right or not, you need to make the best out of it. Putting blame (even if indirectly) on someone else or making excuses for yourself is never well received. Just let it be and see it as a learning experience.

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