Academic Fraud – Psychology

Ethics in Psychology: Academic Fraud

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A Notorious Case of Academic Fraud

This paper discusses the “notorious” case of academic fraud by Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt as presented by Beloff (1980). The research will focus on the ethical problem presented, the ethical principles breached according to the Australian codes of ethics, the motives and justifications of a commitment of this breach, justification for such actions and solutions for dealing with instances of academic fraud such as this one. While a brief discourse on the case of Sir Cyril will be provided, the primary purpose of the case is to address motives and justifications for academic breach, and actions or solutions to such cases that academic institutions can implement to prevent fraud from occurring in the future.

Academic Fraud

Fraud may be defined multiple ways; for purposes of clarification in this paper, fraud is defined as follows: any activities involving perjury, criminal activity, falsification of documentation or data, inclusion or failure to include information directly related to reporting or falsifying of information to provide desired results (Hamilton, 2002, p. 119).

Cyril Burt

Among the most infamous of cases researched and disputed in academic psychology involved the case of Sir Cyril Burt, who was accused of fraud related to major research conducted by Cir Burt, which involved the study of the IQ levels of fifty three identical twins raised apart (Mackintosh, 1995; Beloff, 1980). In his studies, Burt showed a high relationships between the intelligence of twins who were reared separately from each other. However, much scandal arose when following the researcher’s death, many accused Burt’s major theory as false, due to fabrication of data and falsification of records involving research assistants related to the case and co-authors who “lent to his deception of authenticity” of research (Mackintosh, 1995, p. 1).

Ethical Issues and Disputes

The ethical issue presented in this case is whether Burt did indeed engage in ethical fraud, and if so by what means, and by what means or methods can psychologists adequately define a term as fraud which is fraught with ambiguity. Many of the accusations against Burt were based on a said biography of Burt later discovered; recent investigations however by scholars suggest that the charges against Burt were not valid, opening the door for analysis and further commentary (Mackintosh, 1995, p. 2).

Much of the justification for claimed breech of ethical conduct by Burt stems from Leslie Hearnshaw’s published work “Cyril Burt,” which the author claims is based on research including that obtained by personal correspondence and diaries from Burt, which also begs the question as to whether controversy arose from legitimate ethical conduct or unethical access to information that should have remained private (Mackintosh, 1995).

A primary source of controversy among psychologists and academics also lay in whether Burt’s research might be considered ethical in nature, as much of his work was based on his investigation of genetic studies, and the social implications such studies may have on society and the field of academics (Mackintosh, 1995). Most of the claims against fraud were based on other’s inability to locate the women studied and on allegations of missing data, which may or may not be substantiated (Mackintosh, 1995).

Code of Ethical Conduct

The cardinal principles of the Australian Code of Ethics as dictated by the Australian Ethical Society (2003) suggest the following principles must be applied in psychology and in evaluation of academic fraud: (1) professionals have a duty to act using well-informed conscious decision-making, (2) professionals engaged in academic investigation have a duty to act in the interests of the community they serve, (3) professionals and academics have a duty to accept responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of their community before the welfare of their private or personal interests and (4) professionals have an obligation to act with honesty and in good faith to the community, and apply their skill and knowledge in the interests of the community.

Using these principles and tenets, one may conclude that Burt’s actions were justified, whether or not he conducted ethical fraud, based on the principle that Cyril Burt acted in good faith when presenting his studies and empirical data to the public at large. As evidence suggesting fraud occurred is questionable and as yet highly debated and unproven, there is not sufficient evidence to confirm that Burt acted in a self-serving manner or in a manner that would not respect the best interests, health and safety of the community he worked with and provided research to.

Following this argument, one may suggest that those opposing Burt acted unethically, acting in their interests to see a colleague who at best could be described by most as “eccentric” and by some pupils as “undesirable” fall from his place of status and security into one of disrespect and mockery (Hearnshaw, 1979). Podgor (1999) would suggest criminal fraud occurs in cases where legitimate and purposeful actions are taken that harm others and discredit one’s research to the extent where the community the professional served is harmed in some important way, worthy of punishment.

This is difficult to prove however, when critics claim that the justification for Burt’s supposed actions came from activities one might claim are questionable in their own right. Consider for example the morality of publishing someone’s diary, or private correspondences, without permission, posthumous. This brings into question the ethical or moral argument of whether it is even justifiable to use such “evidence” in a case arguing against the academic validity of another’s work.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Burt did however, engage in a breach of ethical code, by falsifying information provided in his reports or by neglecting to include information that may not substantiate the results; or, that his academic research incorporated false testimony of people that did not exist. How might one justify this? There are those that argue that Burt was eccentric in nature, encompassed of a personality that may be questionable and unusual at best (Hearnshaw, 1979; Hamilton, 2002). Things brings to mind the argument that Burt may not have been of sound mind or judgment when he engaged in academic research, or that he did not realize any or all of his actions might constitute a breach of moral code or ethical conduct.

An academic breach may be justifiable under such testimony or argument; certainly there are many who agree it is possible to supply fraudulent information one believes to be true, whether because they are not of sound mind or whether because they fail to investigate the full nature of their studies, or inform themselves of the proper codes of conduct they must follow to ensure ethical practices (Hamilton, 2002). In these cases, it is important to device a solution or proposition to handling such affairs so that academic fraud is minimized and so that academia’s and professionals engage in ethical conduct that promotes the betterment of the community at large rather than the individual.

Proposed Solutions and Actions

There are many proposed solutions and actions one may adopt to address cases such as that of Cyril Burt. Hamilton (2002) suggests presenting criteria or establishing criteria that form the foundation for what is considered “acceptable” or “ethical” behavior and what behaviors are deemed “unethical” thus qualifying as criminal in nature or fraudulent. To accomplish this, academic institutions must achieve the following: (1) establish principles of professional conduct and ethical duties, including duties others have when investigating the validity of scientific claims; (2) establish boundaries as to what can and may not be considered ethical or moral behavior; (3) define “validity” and what criteria are necessary to prove an individual case, and what exclusion criteria are acceptable, meaning what evidence may or may not be left out without impacting the results of a proposed academic study; and (4) create peer collegiums that monitors the practices of researchers and others engaged in scientific research to ensure they maintain clear and correct practices and that they are of sound mind and body when engaging in scientific research (Hamilton, 2002, p. 119).

If such practices were implemented, they would likely reduce the propensity for academic fraud and introduce stringent criteria for ensuring all research is conducted in a manner that follows agreed on moral and ethical codes of conduct. Further this would reduce the likelihood that researchers would “presume” that any evidence or certain evidence may or may not be excluded from research material to validate or disprove claims.


Australian Psychological Society (2003). Code of ethics.

Carlton, VIC: Author.

Beloff, H. (1980). A balance sheet on Burt. Supplement to the Bulletin of the , 33, i-38.

Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY:

Hamilton, N.W. (2002). Academic ethics: Problems and materials on professional conduct and shared governance. Westport: Praeger

Mackintosh, N.J. (1995). Cyril Burt: Fraud or framed? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Podgor, E.S. (1999). Criminal Fraud. American Law Review 1(3)

Vol, 48, No. 4

Ethics Psychology