At the 43rd SEFI conference, an engineering paper that was peer-reviewed by the conference organizers, accepted and scheduled for presentation was censored by the conference management just days before participants arrived. The SEFI 2015 call for papers included a request for authors to discuss the topic of ethics. The censored paper raised concerns about ethics and discussed risk factors regarding the credibility of the engineering profession.
The four-day conference was held in Orleans, France and was attended by hundreds of academic and engineering professionals. It was sponsored by SEFI, the Belgium-based European Society for Engineering Education (La Société Européenne pour la Formation des Ingénieurs). The organization is the largest network of institutions of higher engineering education, individuals, associations and companies in Europe.
The censored paper used the format of a case study to address ethical problems and risks to the engineering profession. The case study focused on the repeated failures of the peer review process of a major engineering journal regarding the mechanism of collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. It pointed out that observations about the event and the resulting debris field did not fit the hypothesis presented in the journal article. More importantly, the peer reviewers did not comment on this discrepancy. The censored paper elaborated on the risks to the credibility of the engineering profession as a result of the engineering publication's flawed peer review process. (English version; French translation; initial abstract; video of presentation).
The last-minute removal of the censored paper from the program, just as the authors were arriving in Europe for the conference, suggests that non-technical issues played a key role in its removal. The paper passed SEFI 2015's peer review steps indicating there were no technical flaws or errors, and it was scheduled for presentation during the Wednesday Physics and Engineering Education session. The SEFI Scientific Committee censored the paper for vague reasons that they refused to elaborate on:
On looking again at your proposed paper, the Committee was not fully convinced that you met the copyright statement below which you completed on 6 April:
'The authors warrant that the article contains no libelous or other unlawful statements and does not infringe the rights of others.'
Ethics Case Study Described
The case study discussed the issue of a peer review in which an article in a prestigious engineering journal failed to authenticate sound engineering analysis. As a result, unsupportable conclusions were published – while alternative explanations have not been published. The censored paper highlighted the risk to the engineering profession when such ethical lapses can provide reasons for the public worldwide to question whether organizations that represent engineers can be trusted.
The World Trade Center Analyses: Case Study of Ethics, Public Policy and the Engineering Profession," critiques the one-and-only published explanation for the mechanism of destruction of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. As documented in the paper, the analysis performed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) did not explain the mechanism of collapse. The case study shows that the explanation in the Journal of Engineering Mechanics, "What Did and Did Not Cause the Collapse of World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York" (by Z. P. Bažant 2008)" is not supported by either cursory observations or basic Newtonian physics.The eight-page censored paper, entitled "
According to the censored authors, available photographs showed that a negligible amount of the structural material fell within the footprint of the towers (e.g. into in the lobby area of the North Tower.) This contradicts Bažant's gravity-only collapse hypothesis which states that the majority of the structural material must accumulate in the lobby area. One must ask, "Where did the mass of the 110-story towers go, and what mass would have been available to do the hypothesized crushing all the way down into the lobby area (i.e., Block C in the journal article)?"
Ethics in Engineering
If a conference such as SEFI 2015 cannot address the ethical lapses of the engineering peer review process, what venues are available to demand that engineers adhere to the ideals embodied in their various codes of ethics? The About SEFI section of SEFI's website states that their "... aims and objectives are ... to reinforce the position of the engineering professionals in society. . ." SEFI's ethical aspirations parallel that of the (U.S.) National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) which states in its Code of Ethics, "Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct." The NSPE Code of Ethics also states that, "... [engineers] must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare."
Censoring discussions showing that a key article in a prominent engineering journal did not adhere to basic laws of Newtonian physics makes a mockery of SEFI's ethical statements. Why is it acceptable for a prominent journal to disregard basic Newtonian physics? Why is there no criticism from organizations representing the engineering profession? What level of flawed or deceptive engineering analysis constitutes an ethical violation in a peer-reviewed article if it does not include adherence to sound engineering analysis? What is deemed "unethical" in Europe – or throughout the world – and how does this affect the credibility of the engineering profession?
In addressing these questions, however, more is at stake than censorship, free speech and ethical peer reviews. If these crucial issues are not interrogated with integrity, the engineering profession may one day wake up to find that their credibility to speak with authority on such issues as climate change and sustainability has vanished.