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NSF Tells PIs: Take Ownership of Your Proposals

Every federal agency has an inspector general’s office that acts as the
internal auditor of the agency’s finances and is the group charged with
rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse in that agency. The National
Science Foundation’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently issued
the first of this fiscal year’s semi-annual reports,
covering the period ending on 31 March 2007. The report included
evidence of plagiarism on several proposals submitted to NSF.

Perhaps
even more disturbing was the report of some PIs who blamed unnamed
graduate students or postdocs for the plagiarism rather than taking
responsibility for the problem. The OIG’s report cites the NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide,
which states that "Authors other than the PI (or any co-PI) should be
named and acknowledged.” These additional authors may include graduate
students, postdocs, and even freelance writers hired to polish the text.

Not
naming all of the authors also prevents the OIG from getting to the
bottom of plagiarism cases. The report says, "If the explanation
provided indicates that an unnamed individual (such as a graduate
student or postdoc) was responsible for the copied text, we contact
that individual to confirm the explanation. Unfortunately, many times
these individuals have left the university, and in some cases, the
country, making it nearly impossible to validate the explanation."

The OIG puts responsibility for the integrity of a proposal
squarely on the PI. "We believe that final responsibility for the
contents of the proposal ultimately resides with the named authors of
the proposal—the PI and the co-PIs. Recent university investigation
committees share this view. Therefore, PIs should carefully review any
written materials that their students and postdocs provide as a part of
a submitted proposal to ensure they meet the high scholarship standards
required of an NSF proposal."

Hat-tip: Ric Weibl, AAAS.