Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catch Me If You Can

Imagine the following situation:

You are a PI in charge of a large project to conduct an environmental assessment of the potential impact of a large Energy Utility on an adjacent natural ecosystem.  With the sizable grant awarded to you, you hire a postdoctoral researcher, technicians, and graduate students to conduct the work.  It is the responsibility of the postdoc, in addition to conducting the field research in his specific area of expertise, to collate all the data from all tasks and to write the final report to the Energy Utility.  

Although this postdoc is fresh out of graduate school, he is an experienced teacher and administrator who returned to graduate school to get a Ph.D. later in life.  You feel very confident in his abilities, especially because of his maturity and past experience, which is a primary reason you hired him for this job.  He is gregarious and well-liked by all on the research team and appears to be a diligent worker.  Things seem to go well during the data acquisition phase; everyone is working hard, spending many hours in the field and laboratory.  As the project is nearing the final months, the postdoc announces that he has accepted an offer to return to his previous position (in another country) but, not to worry, he's almost finished writing the report.  You are not worried because you have high confidence in him and you've been working closely with the technicians and graduate students who are responsible for particular aspects of the report and have also been shown portions of the work supervised by the postdoc.  As often happens in large projects, there are delays.  When it becomes clear that the report cannot be finalized by the date the postdoc must leave, you acquire a no-cost extension for the project and the postdoc agrees to finish up the writing remotely.  

A day or two after the postdoc's departure, you receive a message from him saying that his briefcase containing all the data files and the only copy of the draft report was stolen in the airport.  He's very sorry about this, but he won't be able to meet his obligations.  You are stunned and try to contact him.  All your efforts to communicate fail.  You try not to panic, thinking that at worst, you will just reconstruct everything from the copies of the files he left.  You meet with the technicians and students and explain the situation.  

Your head technician begins delving into the files and discovers some puzzling things.  After several days, the technician comes to your office and tells you that he thinks the postdoc fabricated much of the data he was supposed to have collected personally.  The only data he's confident of is what he and the other technicians and students collected.  However, cross-checking the original datasheets from field notebooks and lab books indicates that the postdoc cooked some of the summary files (altered the data) so that everything will have to be reconstructed from the original datasheets.  And the data the postdoc collected will have to be discarded and either recollected or eliminated from the report. 

You begin to investigate further and discover that the postdoc never really received a Ph.D.--his graduate committee failed him when it became clear he had fabricated some of his dissertation research.  The letters of reference from the adviser and other faculty to you were all forged.  Because the letters were from well-respected professors at a credible university and department, you never bothered to check with the postdoc's graduate school to determine that he actually received his degree from that university....

In other words, you've been the victim of an elaborate con.

If you were the PI in this situation, what would you do?  If you were one of the students or technicians and saw something that made you suspicious, would you report it to the PI?  If you (PI or team member) later encountered this person at a conference or other venue, what would you do?

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