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Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

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Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby Nate W. » Wed Jul 29, 2015 4:38 pm

Dear Forum,

Several years ago, there was a huge scientific misconduct scandal at Duke University that made national news. However, what wasn't reported was the back story of this scandal. There are many innocent victims of scientific misconduct just trying to do their jobs; yet they lose time away from the bench dealing with an investigation and often lose their jobs due to the unethical behavior of others.

Sadly, the whistle blower and coworkers,trying to do what is right, are often marginalized and even fired. Innocent coworkers are stigmatized and their work is considered merit-less by their peers. Positive references are lost when their PI is reprimanded. I can only imagine what it was like for innocent staff members in the Nevins lab who did excellent work.

In recent years, there has been a rise in the incidences of scientific misconduct due to the pressures to publish and the competitiveness of NIH/NSF funding (see Ferric PNAS). Many cases of misconduct are ignored (i.e. never heard of or swept under the rug) due to the fact the University administrators don't want to disrupt the flow of grant money. Complicating matters, the balance of power favors the PI and laws often protect the University not the innocent. For example, many state Universities are protected by sovereign immunity which supersedes any whistle blower protection statutes. Thus, the whistle blowers and innocent coworkers become the collateral damage of such scandals.

Here is the story about the whistle blower in the Anil Potti Duke Scandal:

http://www.cancerletter.com/articles/20150109_1
http://www.cancerletter.com/articles/20150116_1

Incident of scientific misconduct:

http://www.pnas.org/content/109/42/17028.full


My questions for the forum:

What would you do if you knew that a coworker was fabricating data?

What would you do if a PI included fabricated data in a NIH grant proposal?

What would you do if you raised your concerns about inconsistencies in one's research data only to be marginalized by your PI, HR, or the University administration?

Would you just leave, say nothing, and find another lab? Especially, if you had just done your thesis in this lab.

Do you have an ethical obligation to report your concerns?

How do you preserve your career w/o being a victim of collateral damage if you are an innocent coworker?
Last edited by Nate W. on Thu Jul 30, 2015 3:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby D.X. » Thu Jul 30, 2015 2:23 am

I can answer your question in the order received.

1. Report it immediately.
2. Report it immediately.
3. Call the Office of Research Integrity.
4. Run and do what you need to do to protect yourself.
5. Yes you do. You are ethically obligated which can easily turn into legal obligation.
6. Hire a lawyer, cooporate with investigators and focus on distancing yourself as early as possible.

Good luck.

DX
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby Dave Walker » Thu Jul 30, 2015 10:48 am

Wow, Nate, those articles must be 20,000 words in total!

I only know of the misconduct practices at one institution -- they are long, labyrinthine, and extremely thorough affairs. Ethicists and legal counsel are involved, and for what it's worth all faculty I've interacted with on the subject take it very seriously. Some might even be terrified of it.

Your questions are filtered through the lens of the whistleblower, usually subordinate to a PI and lower on the chain of command. It's a tough position to be in.

Again, it might change between institutions, but mine had many layers of secrecy for reporting misconduct: PI < department head < Dean of Research < hotline to talk with ethicist.

So to answer your question, I would probably report it somewhere on that chain, depending on my career path. In this case it's a no-brainer to me: the medical student in his 1-year research program (not a PhD student or postdoc) is first author on submitted mansucript called into question by peer review. He had to respond in some way, and he chose the right thing.

Now, if I were a grad student in the lab, doing my own thing, and I saw this happen, or somehow "knew" about the misconduct, what are my responsibilities? By the book, they are the same, and I should do the same thing. But as a devil's advocate I could see the power differential in being a grad student up against the accused PI and institution and likely becoming a victim in that fight. Ethically the choice is clear, but realistically I can see many sides.

****
On a side note:

1) When discussing such sensitive matters, why on earth does everyone write e-mails to each other? Emails that are guaranteed evidence, and also, now, open to the public to judge your character?

2) This goes double for sharing your story with a blog like The Cancer Letter. The internet has made stories virtually permanent and doing so will haunt me for the rest of my years. What does he gain from doing this, I wonder?



EDIT: accidentally addressed DX instead of Nate
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby John D. D, » Fri Jul 31, 2015 2:26 am

I would stand on my own 2 feet, and move on. I'm not a cop, and no one will ever force me into that role.
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby John D. D, » Fri Jul 31, 2015 10:51 am

Everyone probably has a line for letting someone know that there is a problem. Mine is when I see suffering in a being that could be prevented by simple measures, and that the person has verbally committed to preventing by stating that they will perform such measures, and then seeing that suffering happen. Even then, I do what I can to prevent the suffering, and if the s__t hits the fan, I express my anger and complaint in the presence of one other trusted confidential person in front of the individual, and then leave.
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby Mark » Thu Apr 28, 2016 5:06 pm

A graduate student can't always protest against his advisor even after knowing that the advisor is fabricating the data. It's not easy to report such incidents as it can put him in the risk of losing his job. Not everyone can be risk takers. I personally think email records can serve as proofs that the student didn't fabricate the data. As long as the student remains honest and submits the raw data files to his advisor and even after knowing the actual situation, if the advisor publishes the data according to his own hypothesis, the student has nothing to do.
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby Nate W. » Thu Apr 28, 2016 6:20 pm

Mark wrote:A graduate student can't always protest against his advisor even after knowing that the advisor is fabricating the data. It's not easy to report such incidents as it can put him in the risk of losing his job. Not everyone can be risk takers. I personally think email records can serve as proofs that the student didn't fabricate the data. As long as the student remains honest and submits the raw data files to his advisor and even after knowing the actual situation, if the advisor publishes the data according to his own hypothesis, the student has nothing to do.


What if a PI deliberately overlooks fabrication by a lab staff member (not you) due to concerns about renewing his grant? The PI has been shown raw data by you and other lab members which indicates the data in question can not be reproduced due to possible fabrication. The PI doesn't want to admit to this possibility and publishes the data in question anyway as well as submit it for a grant proposal. You have kept this a secret for several years and you not longer work for this PI (nor the University). However, you still depend on his reference and you know his reference is misleading (or inaccurate) possibly due to this incident of misconduct by someone else. What do you do?
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Re: Collateral career damage and scientific misconduct

Postby Mark » Thu Apr 28, 2016 8:35 pm

There can be many graduate students who are facing similar problems. The best thing is to report such things. But if somebody is afraid to report it, that person shouldn't be considered as guilty.
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