I recently read a book by regular Adventures in Ethics and Science commenter Solomon Rivlin. Scientific Misconduct and Its Cover-Up: Diary of a Whistleblower is an account of a university response to allegations of misconduct gone horribly wrong. I’m hesitant to describe it as the worst possible response — there are surely folks who could concoct a scenario where administrative butt-covering maneuvers bring about the very collapse of civilization, or at least a bunch of explosions — but the horror of the response described here is that it was real:
The events and personalities described in the following account are real. Names and places were changed to protect the identity of the people who took part in this ugly drama …
I wish I could say that the events described in this book came across as unrealistic. However, paying any attention at all to the world of academic science suggests that misconduct, and cover-ups of misconduct, are happening. Given the opacity of administrative decision making, it’s impossible to know the prevalence of the problem — whether this is just a case of a few extraordinarily well-connected bad actors, or whether the bad actors have come to dominate the ecosystem. In any case, an inside look at how one university responded to concerns about scientific integrity gives us some useful information about features of the academic culture that can constrain and impede efforts to hold scientists accountable for their conduct.
The events center around an associate professor who discovers that research she has planned has been stolen by her department chair and the vice chair of another department. The two have written — and received funding for — a grant proposal resting on published work and preliminary experiments by the associate professor. As it turns out, the grant proposal also plagiarizes heavily from the doctoral thesis of an uncredited graduate, falsifies data, and even falsifies biographical information about the proposing authors.
In short, it’s a very problematic grant proposal, but the people who have secured it have significant power in their departments.
What follows is the agonizing attempt of the associate professor’s confidant in another department to get the system to work in investigating and punishing the misconduct. At every turn, we see university officials shrinking from the daunting task of reigning in successful and well-funded scientists. Panels are formed and charged, yet they seem constitutionally unable to work within the time frame specified by the university’s policies, and end up spinning their wheels trying to determine precisely whose official definition of plagiarism is binding. University administrators throw their weight around to pressure panels to change the judgments at which it took them so long to arrive in the first place.
And, retaliation is exacted.
I probably don’t need to tell you that there’s not a triumphal happy ending here.
As you might guess from the title, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the whistleblower. Rivlin conveys vividly the difficulty of painstakingly sifting through evidence and policy to present a case only to see various factions at the university ignore both evidence and policy when to do otherwise would be inconvenient. A significant portion of the book is told through letters, memos, and official policy statements — the sort of thing that might scare away a reader who hasn’t tried to navigate the bureaucracy of academia. Since I’m a denizen of the academic world, I was taken not only by the tortured official language of these missives, but also by the clear — and depressing — subtext they conveyed. Indeed, I found myself wondering how much a certain kind of academic double-speak enables a broader academic culture where one can’t count on truth even from one’s colleagues.
There were some features of the book I found a bit distracting. One of these was set of names assigned to the characters to disguise the identities of the real-life participants in the situation: Dr. Frank I.M. Moral and Dr. Christian C. Heat are the authors of the problematic grant proposal, Jeremy M. Artyr is the guy from whose dissertation they plagiarize, Donald V. Icedean is the Vice Dean, and so on. What bothered me wasn’t so much that the names were cutesy, but that they tip the reader off immediately to the kind of character they’re dealing with. In real life, we don’t have such obvious clues as to who will be courageous and who will be cowardly, who will be honest and who will not.
Related to this, I had some trouble with the few sections of the book that purported to show us something about the internal mental states of the characters other than the whistleblower — especially the parts trying to put us in the minds of the wrongdoers. Perhaps it’s because I have limited faith in my own ability to really get inside someone’s head (and limited patience with others trying to tell me what I think). The narrative voice of the whistleblower — especially in his letters — is so strong and clear that I wish that the book had actually been structured as a diary. Then, we might have seen the whistleblower not only struggling with bureaucracy (and the slowness of the process), but also trying to figure out for himself in the absence of full information about the mental states of others what could motivate scientists and administrators to abandon ethical standards and scientific truth.
All this is to say that you shouldn’t expect Scientific Misconduct and Its Cover-Up: Diary of a Whistleblower to read like a novel. Then again, Rivlin is not a novelist but a scientist who watched the system fail the truth from inside the ivory tower. His careful documentation of this incident might well help others figure out ways to avoid the same depressing outcome elsewhere.