Sunday, August 16, 2009


What do you do if you suspect someone of scientific misconduct? What if you are accused of scientific fraud?

I just finished reading an academic novel called “Intuition”, which is about scientific fraud, whistle-blowing, and interpersonal relationships in a scientific laboratory devoted to investigating potential cancer cures. I found it a fascinating look at ethics as well as an entertaining story about scientists behaving badly.

Image by J. Taylor

When I was younger and more idealistic, I would not have hesitated to report misconduct. Now, I would tread more carefully.

Upon seeing a bank being robbed, a hit-and-run, or a child being abused, many people will call the authorities without thinking twice and stick around to provide eyewitness statements. But when it comes to reporting a coworker, a supervisor, an employee, or a colleague of suspected wrongdoing, people are more likely to hesitate because of the potential consequences—for themselves as well as for the accused.

Whistleblowers often suffer consequences equal to or even more serious than the people they accuse--which gives one pause. There is also the situation in which the evidence of scientific misconduct is not clear-cut. If you suspect misconduct, you must decide if there is enough evidence to warrant instigating an investigation. If you are mistaken, the person you accuse will suffer damage to their reputation that may never be overcome. There is also the possibility that the person you accuse will turn the tables on you and sue for slander and/or initiate an investigation into your scientific integrity in retaliation.

What if it’s you who’s accused of misconduct? Early in my career someone put some documents in my mailbox that insinuated I had altered data. There were two photocopies of a graph: one from a draft report to a funding agency and the other from the published article based on the same work. The same data point on each graph was circled with a red marking pen. The mean values on the two graphs differed slightly, and the first had a larger standard error. There were several question marks written next to these data points. That’s all there was—no note and no indication of who had put it in my mailbox. But the implication was clear: someone was threatening me with “evidence” of wrongdoing.

Of course, I knew who had done it. I had been harassed for years by a male coworker. This particular incident occurred about a week after I had cleaned out some of my old files, discarding duplicate copies and early drafts of old reports and manuscripts into the recycle bin. This individual apparently had been monitoring the recycle bin looking for something damaging.

This was one of those situations that superficially looked suspicious, but for which there was a reasonable explanation. The first photocopied graph was from an early draft of a report. I later noticed that one data point had an unusually large standard error compared to the others. I rechecked the original data and discovered a data entry error (a misplaced decimal point), which I then corrected. The final draft of the report and the journal article had the correct data. The difference between the two versions of the graph had no impact on the overall conclusions of the study or even the interpretation of that specific graph. Of course, that would not matter if the change had been made inappropriately.

The individual who had put these documents into my mailbox never reported it. I think he got more satisfaction out of me waiting to be accused of misconduct. I did worry about it for a long time—until it was clear nothing would come of it. There was little I could do because I had no proof that it was this person who had done this.

After that incident, I never put anything in the paper recycle bin.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Watch what you attach to emails too. I had figures for a paper forwarded around the boys club by a low-level "collaborator" who was a conniving backstabber. Instead of writing the paper, I dumped it, made the data available online, and listed only myself as the contact info. So, I showed them, but I also threw away a first-authored paper for myself. I also disassociated myself from them so I don't have to spend an eternity writing their slacker names on my CV.