Yesterday, I recalled MIT’s dismissal of one of its biology professors for fabrication and falsification, both “high crimes” in the world of science. Getting caught doing these is Very Bad for a scientist — which makes the story of Luk Van Parijs all the more puzzling.
As the story unfolded a year ago, the details of the investigation suggested that at least some of Van Parijs lies may have been about details that didn’t matter so much — which means he was taking a very big risk for very little return. Here’s what I wrote then:
The conduct of fired MIT biology professor Luk Van Parijs, as reconstructed in the investigation of his work of the last eight years or so, gets curiouser and curiouser. From the October 29th Boston Globe, a follow-up story by Bombardieri and Cook tells us that problems have surfaced not only with the research Van Parijs did at MIT, but also with papers he authored about research he did at Brigham and Women’s Hospital while a graduate student. But the twist here is that it’s not entirely clear how his fraud in these cases would have helped him. From the Globe article:
The new revelation deepens the mystery about a rising star who was popular with students and colleagues and appeared to be a gifted biologist. In both of the new cases, it appears that Van Parijs said he had done work that he had not done, work that would have been a small part of the overall experiment.
In one case, the data in question would not have affected the conclusion, said Dr. Abul Abbas, who directed the Brigham laboratory where Van Parijs worked and was the senior author on both papers. For the second paper, the questionable data may have affected the outcome, Abbas said.
So, it seems we have a guy fabricating or falsifying data that might not even change the conclusion of the papers for which these “data” were created.
I can think of a couple of plausible explanations here. One might be that he felt he needed more data to wave around to strengthen the impact of the actually good data he collected. (Replication is good, and more is better.) Another is that possibly some of the “good” data wasn’t all that good either, but it was more convincingly faked. This might not be that crazy an idea. Suspicions about Van Parijs’s work from his Brigham and Women’s years are tied to some plots that look more similar than they should:
In the two papers, Van Parijs was investigating the function of T cells, which are part of the immune system. Van Parijs ran samples of the cells through a device known as a flow cytometer, which sorts the cells by the characteristics in which the scientists are interested. This produces plots, essentially diagrams with large numbers of dots, with each dot representing a cell.
In both papers, there are plots that appear to be almost identical, even though the paper says they are sets of cells from different mice. Using only one mouse would have saved time. The plots are not exact copies, though, which Abbas told the Globe has made him more concerned, because if the data are fraudulent, it implies they were done intentionally. Changing data or inventing it is considered a very serious offense, regardless of the effect the act has on the conclusions made in a research paper, scientists said.
(Bold emphasis added.)
This is the kind of fakery that was bound to be caught — with a little reflection, Van Parijs could surely have turned out a better faked plot.
The other possibility here, which seems very weird, is that the fabrication and falsification were not done with the intention of producing “better” results, nor of affecting the reported results at all. But this would make Van Parijs … a scientist who is lying to other scientists just because he can? Is this the scientific equivalent of torturing cats before moving on to your first murder of a human?
Perhaps. Again from the Globe article:
It is not unusual to see cases of fraud involving data that are tangential to the main point of a research paper, as is alleged in some of Van Parijs’s work, according to C.K. Gunsalus, a special counsel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and specialist on research integrity.
”It is very common, and there is also a common defense, which is ‘I have a PhD and I wouldn’t have done something so stupid,’ ” said Gunsalus. Often, she said, this defense is successful. She also said that it was common to see a pattern of escalation, with small infractions building over time to larger ones.
(Again, the bold emphasis is mine.)
Do scientists who lie about insignificant things lose their taste for gathering real data, or do they get a taste for putting one over on other scientists? Either way, it seems clear that, in a field that is all about figuring out how things really work, telling lies is a Very Bad Thing. At this point, I’d imagine, citing a paper on which Van Parijs is an author would add about nothing, in terms of evidential support, to anyone else’s serious scientific work — this despite the fact that fact that Van Parijs’s postdoctoral advisor, David Baltimore, told the Globe that “he knows from work that his lab has done following up on Van Parijs’s research that a lot of what he did is, in fact, verifiable.” (That “knowledge” rests on the assumption, of course, that members of the lab are doing legitimate experiments and analyses of these … because surely Van Parijs was the only one who would ever dare to do otherwise.)
By the way, C.K. Gunsalus is the authority to consult on scientific integrity (and lack thereof) in university research settings. Despite some quite reasonable worries people have expressed (like YoungFemaleScientist in this excellent post) about folks accused of scientific misconduct being ruined forever even if the charges turn out to be baseless, Gunsalus has argued that more frequently the lack of real penalties allow the cheats to stay in the system and cheat again. There’s a fairly high recidivism rate on cheating in science, according to Gunsalus; it’s hardly ever the case that someone is caught for misconduct without having a history of similar deeds. (And that seems to be how the Van Parijs case is shaping up.) And what’s the message to the rest of the scientific community if someone is caught fabricating and falsifying data, but is only given a slap on the wrist because it didn’t effect the conclusions (or maybe it did, but other labs have “validated” the results)? The message is that lying isn’t really a big deal.
Gunsalus has a downloadable offprint that bundles two of her best articles: “How to Blow the Whistle and Still Have a Career Afterwards” and “Preventing the Need for Whistleblowing: Practical Advice for University Administrators.” Both are beautifully written and full of practical advice. If you’re a scientist or a science student (or a university administrator), you need to read them!