Adventures in Ethics and Science

In the aftermath of my two posts on allegations of ethical lapses among a group of paleontologists studying aetosaurs, an email correspondent posed a really excellent question: what’s a junior person to do about the misconduct of senior people in the field when the other senior people seem more inclined to circle the wagons than to do anything about the people who are misbehaving?

That’s the short version. Here’s the longer version from my correspondent:

I am and have been outraged by the blatant corruption in my field for a couple of decades, and one of the “stars” in my field was my first violator. Since then, I’ve experienced and witnessed dozens of similar crimes. I fight it where I can, and I’ve stopped a few incidents, but the academic system allows for no victories, only standoffs. In a field as tiny and ego-driven as paleontology, the bad ones travel in packs. The field veterans are well insulated, and the professional organizations seem to be wholly subsumed by an Old Boys’ Network — allies of the wrongdoers.

I’m angry to hear that some of the people who stole my results are still at it, but at this point, I’m not sure that I can contribute anything of substance to help their more recent victims. My first-hand experiences occurred years ago while I was still a student. I can only offer undocumented reminiscences that are, relatively speaking, ancient history. I worry that they will cloud the main issue, namely, the more recent violations of trust in our field. At best, they’ll be regarded as more “unfounded” accusations from a relative unknown, with the air of sour grapes; at worst, they’ll be regarded as libelous.

Ethics in science is a war I think is worth waging, but even in war, commanders pick their battles. Do you think this is skirmish is one to fight? Can it be won? Does it need to be won to be effective? Can scientists at the bottom of the hierarchy receive redress for the misbehavior of those at the top? Can they stop these scientists from committing further misdeeds?

After years of training and more years’ fruitless search for a research position, I find myself afraid to risk what little I finally have teased from the PhD dream to hold the wrongdoers to account. What would you do?

This is a tough spot to be in. I’m guessing that the first round of crimes my correspondent witnessed (and fell victim to) in this scientific community were so surprising that keeping a paper trail wasn’t even on the radar. (Were it me, I suspect I’d be thinking about whether I even wanted to stay in the field, not collecting evidence against people far more powerful than myself in that scientific community.)

So, the option of directly confronting past bad acts on the basis of testimony without documentation doesn’t seem like a great one. The fact that it would be the word of a junior person against the word of a senior person makes it feel like a suicide mission.

Still, I think it’s a very bad thing if the victims of past misbehavior give up and turn their bitterness against other victims. That’s no kind of way to build a healthy professional community whose members take their shared project of building scientific knowledge seriously.

So what other options are available? Here are the ones that occur to me:

Train your students to protect themselves from similar mistreatment.

Good record-keeping is very useful in science. You want to document your observations, measurements, and analyses — and it also makes sense to document with whom you share specimens, data, manuscripts, student theses, and so on. In circumstances where your field is not a snake-pit, this sort of documentation can be helpful in capturing the development of your ideas and understanding of the particular scientific question you’re tackling, which in turn might be helpful to you later if you hit a mental block and need to get your scientific mojo back.

In circumstances where your field is a snake-pit, the student who is doing this sort of comprehensive record-keeping has a better chance of protecting herself and her intellectual property from the snakes. (I also wonder if the snakes might notice the really thorough record-keepers and be dissuaded from victimizing them.)

Beyond helping your students become habitual documenters, it may also be good to help them suss out which members of your professional community have shown themselves to be trustworthy and which have, through their personal interactions, provided good reason to think they are less reliable. You don’t want your trainees jumping at shadows, but you want to help train them to trust their gut feelings when they get a bad vibe from someone in the community, and to find diplomatic but effective ways to protect themselves.

Demonstrate alternatives to circling the wagons.

In the event that people have brought charges of misconduct against senior people in your scientific community, take a stand in favor of seeing what the evidence shows. Gently remind your colleagues that scientists are professionally committed to following the evidence rather than making their minds up in advance — especially on the basis of position or personality.

Express empathy for those bringing the charges. You can, if necessary, preface this empathy with a disclaimer that you don’t know all the relevant details (which should remind your colleagues that they don’t, either). But a conversation about how, if the allegations are true, this is a truly awful situation for those making the allegations in particular ways X, Y, and Z — that’s a conversation that might get your colleagues thinking beyond the question of who will be the winner of this particular dispute. Indeed, it might get them thinking about the various people in their scientific community as engaged in a common project — as comrades, not just competitors.

Talk with your colleagues (including the senior people) in your professional community about what kind of professional community you all want to create and maintain.

This is huge. Be a consistent voice within your community raising the questions, “Is this the best way to do science in our field?”, “Are these the kinds of interactions on which we want to be judged by folks in other scientific fields?”, and “Is this the kind of professional community we want to be?” Even having people inside the tribe asking these questions out loud is bound to make people in the tribe a bit more reflective. It might make them consider long-term consequences of choices that seem expedient in the short term.

It might even start a real dialogue — one where people express different views, but where they also understand that they will be expected to provide reasons to back up those views. Again, this is an opportunity to harness the scientist’s self-image as a person of reason, not only to consider how bad actors make it harder for the community to do good science, but also to notice that there are different plausible ways that the community could be than its current state.

Notice professional communities that aren’t pathological, and bring back reports to your professional community.

Talking with folks who are still in the tribe of science but who aren’t in your particular field may help suggest ways your own professional community could improve. Being able to bring some of this anecdata to bear in the discussion of what you want your community to be like may help your colleagues believe that change is possible — and making things better could restore your pride in your field.

None of these suggestions will lead to a quick and satisfying take-down of the wrongdoers whose ethical violations did you harm. Each on its own can be expected to have relatively modest effects.

But when enough members or the community are asking the questions about where the community is going, interacting with each other in ways that involve accountability as well as trust, and resisting the reflexive circling of wagons — maybe then a scientific community can change course for the better.

I want to pose the question to my readers, though — especially those of you with experience in such situations: What good options does a junior person have to stand up to the misbehavior of senior people in the field?

Follow-up: I pose the question to senior scientists, if you’re seeing the bad acts, what are you doing about them?

* * * * *

Related posts:

Advice on protecting your intellectual property.
The price of calling out misconduct.
Whistleblowing: the community’s response.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymous
    February 18, 2008

    I’m keeping this anonymous, although you (Janet) can probably guess who the author is.

    I spent a decade working in corporate research lab with an environment where intellectual theft was rampant. When it first happened to me, I went to a senior colleague, who’s reaction was “That’s absolutely unacceptable, it should never happen around here”, followed immediately by his own stories of having work stolen from him.

    That was pretty much the universal reaction – a sort of reaction feigning shock, followed by their own stories of being victimized.

    The people who regularly stole work were, in fact, the most well-rewarded people in the lab. I finally concluded that despite the feigned shock, the fact of the matter was that the people running the place – the top level management – didn’t mind it; in fact, they actively rewarded it.

    The point of telling this story is that none of your suggestions above would work. Those are all things that we tried. But when the people in a position to do something about it are being rewarded either by their silence or by their complicity, all of the things you suggest have effects ranging from nothing to career suicide.

    My experience, sad as it sounds, is that as a junior person in a corrupt research area has two choices: accept the fact that they’re going to get screwed, or find a different field.

  2. #2 Adina Cappell
    February 18, 2008

    You can start a password-protected, secure webpage for the lab, where people can upload their continuous findings as they accumulate them (kind of like an electronic lab notebook). You can claim it’s for the sake of collaboration and intellectual teamwork, but it would be a good way, for those who utilize it, to have straight-up proof of their discoveries.

  3. #3 Jeff Chamberlain
    February 18, 2008

    In more years as an employment lawyer than I like to admit, I have had many occasions to counsel people considering whistleblowing in a variety of contexts. I’m sorry to say that in almost all circumstances, the “real world” price is not worth it.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 18, 2008

    Anonymous,

    I’d agree with this grim assessment if a field was totally shot through with baddies. But unless all the senior people in the field are liars, I have to believe that some of them can be reacquainted with their sense of outrage — that they can stand up and use their seniority to confront the bastards who are giving their field a bad name.

    Or are senior academic scientists too far gone for this?

    (C’mon senior academic scientists, stand up for yourselves! Honesty and fair play actually matter to you, right? You’d call out bad behavior if you knew about it, right? You wouldn’t just clamp your eyes shut and stick your fingers in your ears, would you?)

  5. #5 S. Rivlin
    February 18, 2008

    I have responded many times in the past to similar posts on your blog, Janet. In my field, neuroscience, where there are ten of thousands of scientists, only a small fraction are bad apples. However, it is not this field or another that is being contaminated by them. The majority of the contamination affects their own departments and universities, and within those entities, the eyes and ears of those surrounding these bad apples are shut most of the times. Moreover, many scientist-turned administrators have crossed to the dark side and are actively involved in covering up wrong doing believing that their main function is to protect the reputation of their institute. Needless to say, those actions are also being usually rewarded handsomely with promotions and salary increases. My tenure had protected me from losing my job when I blew the whistle on two big-shot professors yet, I still had to pay a very high price fighting windmills.

  6. #6 Lab Lemming
    February 19, 2008

    Rivlin has a very good point- Until a penalty against institutions is levied for not catching bad apples, they will continue to cover instead of clarify. As long as institutional level administrators can hide with plausible deniability, then that is the maximum level of self-policing that they will use.

  7. #7 nekouken
    February 19, 2008

    This happens in the medical community a lot, which I’ve learned through the tribulations of my father and stepmother. The details are pretty heavy, but the short version is this: after witnessing sexual harrassment, Medicare fraud, nepotism, gross negligence and a host of unethical and illegal behaviors from the doctors and nurses at the nursing home where my stepmother worked, she blew the whistle, and not only did the wagons circle and cover up any trace of misdeed, but her workplace environment became exceptionally hostile to her to the point that she became addicted to valium and had to take a FMLA leave to detox, only to not be offered her job back after the FMLA leave ended.

    Between her and my dad, they did a lot of work, but the details are quite disturbing and there are a lot of them, so in short:

    If you’re going to do something about the misconduct, be emotionally prepared to wash your hands of it and walk away — from the situation and your job, if not your career. Troublemakers get reputations that spread quickly in insular networks.

    If your involvement leads to court, walk away unless you have a wealthy benefactor, because they will drag this out. The limited legal protections afforded to whistleblowers were overturned by the US Supreme Court last year, which will leave you completely on your own.

    Do not take it personal. That’s not to say that it won’t be personal, but if you let the very personal things that will be done and said to you get you, they’ve already beaten you.

    I really, really hope that helps.

  8. #8 Michael P. Taylor
    February 19, 2008

    It makes pretty depressing reading, the comment section for this post. Anyway, I just wanted to say for the record (and I am one of the three people who together wrote the initial letters of complains about the Aetosaur ethics issue that was the jumping-off point for this post) that I don’t at all consider vertebrate palaeontology to be a “corrupt research area”. Although the incidents that we documented are not unique (based on others’ experiences as told to me), they are certainly very much more the exception than the rule. Nearly every vertebrate palaeontologist I’ve had dealings with has been fully honest and absolutely ethical — and more than that, positively kind and helpful.

    The issue, of course, is that it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the barrel. Apart from the Evasive Manoeuvres you outline in this article, I’ve also heard of people responding to the events of Aetogate by keeping their work secret and refusing to share copies of their dissertations — a state of affairs that, while completely understandable, is surely antithetical to everything we hope to achieve in science, an enterprise in which we’re supposed to stand on each other’s shoulders, not feet.

    That’s why, if things really are as they appear to be (and remember that we still await the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s Ethics Committee, which is investigating the allegations) a very clear message will need to be sent.

  9. #9 CC
    February 19, 2008

    1) Except in cases of objective fraud or fabrication, there’s nothing junior people can do, unless they’re willing to cripple or end their careers to tarnish someone else’s. Even in cases of fraud, they’ll still wind up like those grad students in Wisconsin who turned in their PI, like Samson pulling the temple down around himself.

    2) As a consequence of 1), the only junior researchers who are willing to do it are the ones with nothing to lose. Unfortunately, obviously bitter and frustrated people complaining about how their careers have suffered because of theft don’t win a lot of sympathy. And the supporters who do rally around them usually further erode their credibility. Isn’t Intuition a marvelously perceptive book?

    3) It’s also worth keeping in mind that “scientific ethics” isn’t the law. Your first comment prompts a reminder that academic conventions don’t necessarily apply in industry — it takes some new hires a while to adjust to the different reward system there, although most find pretty quickly that they prefer bonuses to even victorious squabbles over authorship.

  10. #10 Will S.
    February 19, 2008

    In general, I concur with the replies here: that efforts to encourage ethical behavior among colleagues are met with everything from glib approval to jovial dismissal and are just as quickly forgotten; that tilting against an unethical colleague is usually professional suicide; and that most ethical scientists simply have too much to do to wage war against a grasping colleague–it’s just simpler to turn away.

    Sadly, my experiences with vertebrate paleontology differ from those of Mr. Taylor. As much as I love my field and the work I do, I’d classify it as a snake-pit. As Mr. Taylor says, there are respectable paleontologists, and like him I know a few; but I also know of too many others who are not, and some of them fill the most visible positions in our field. In addition, VP attracts a wide range of specialists from other fields who want to do “sexy” science on a T. rex fossil. Many of these dabblers cannot “do” paleontology and so are prone to borrowing it from whichever student is within reach. Herein lies our biggest problem–the sharks prey predominantly on students.

    Almost all of the scoops and thefts and other violations I experienced victimized a student. Students catch it twice in VP because limited funding puts them at the mercy of a large number of professors at school while a deep gulf between “student” and “professional” status marginalizes them among the professional community. When student work is scooped, they’re given the options to quit or start over–even when, as in the several cases I experienced, the scooping academic was *invited in* by one or more members of the student’s committee. Student work makes up a giant proprotion of presentations and posters at VP conferences, and since student work is regarded (by some more than others) as a kind of gray literature, it is fair game for intellectually bankrupt academics; students even rip off other students in this environment. Student papers pass through the publication process more slowly than others do, and usually involve more reviewers, lending themselves to cherry picking; I’m not alone, I’m sure, in walking into a conference and hearing my ideas recited verbatim by someone who had just reviewed my manuscript for Journal X.

    If there’s a weakest link that could be directly addressed in the effort to clean up scientific ethics, I think it should be aimed at defining rights for graduate students and finding ways to protect them. Departments resist deeper kinds of commitment, I’ve learned, perhaps because an irate student will graduate but an irate professor is forever. The best I’ve been able to do is to instill in my own students the need to keep good records and to know a shark when they see the fin. I also encourage building their own network of trusted colleagues as they climb through the ranks, and the need to remember, always, to attribute properly and reward collaboration. It’s small and insufficient, but it’s a skirmish we can win. At least in VP, the problem will only get worse until the funding improves…and who knows when that will be.

  11. #11 Anonymous
    February 19, 2008

    As someone who is in VP, it has both snakes and very good people. It is a skill to learn which are which. I cane from a program where my adviser had been scooped before, so he was very private and quiet about his current research projects and wanted us to be the same way. Sometimes the degree of secrecy I felt I had to keep was very sad and it did bother me. Unfortunatly I have also had to deal with the misfortune of sharing my thesis with someone I thought I could trust before my results were published, only to have my thesis distributed. That was a mistake on my part to share the information with this individual, and I wish now that I had been more guarded and not so forthcoming. But where do you draw the line between good research practices and being private? I did not want to be as paranoid as my adviser had been, but now I find myself leaning towards that mentality…

  12. #12 Luna_the_cat
    February 20, 2008

    From my own limited experience, but also from observation, an institutional response of attempting to protect itself from condemnation or liability by covering up is neither unique to paleontology, nor uncommon. The problems in medicine are well enough documented — see http://jme.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/30/1/35 for example. I’ve also experienced it, to a lesser degree, in computing. More to the point, my husband — a sociologist — lost his lecturing post because he was vocal about bad practice in his department involving a PhD candidate, and wouldn’t back down. He was unemployed for several years after that because of his subsequent reputation for being a troublemaker.

    The only thing I’ve ever seen that helps is document, document, document; keep a verifiable paper trail of absolutely everything. Collect emails. But be prepared to pay the price; I can’t think of anyone trying to speak up against theft of effort or misconduct without being at the least blacklisted internally and finding any plum projects given to others.

    Your good-hearted suggestions above are lovely ideas, but the repeated observation is both straightforward and unlikly to change: Everyone who tries to make a problem public is going to find their own career suffering for it.

  13. #13 J.J.
    February 20, 2008

    I agree with Luna’s comments – Everyone who tries to make a problem public is going to find their own career suffering for it.

    Feel sorry about Luna’s husband unemployment. How is he doing now?

  14. #14 ReBecca
    February 20, 2008

    The vertebrate paleontology community has many many wonderful, trustworthy people in it. Unfortunatly, there are a few people who do not fall into this category, but that will be in any field you are in. I feel like more needs to be done to inform students – junior members of the field as to what their rights are and what to do if they ever feel like they are put into an awkward or bad situation, ethically. This would be a great chance for those senior people in our field to get to know many of the younger crowd and talk about these issues and their experiences. Thank you for your tips above Janet!

  15. #15 Luna_the_cat
    February 20, 2008

    It made for a bad few years, but wonderfully, he’s fully employed now — just no longer lecturing in sociology; ironically (or not, maybe) he’s now in HR, dealing with business training for grad students. Thanks, J.J.!

  16. #16 Peter Morgan
    February 21, 2008

    It seems to me that it is the “atmosphere” of a research group/department that matters. Good behavior can be achieved most of the time if the bad apples who are in the group are relatively isolated by the majority of people in the group (“bad apples” might apply to a few people all the time, but whistle-blowing can itself be ethically questionable if it is an over-reaction to a small slight, of which perhaps all of us are capable; it is bad behavior rather than bad people; rehabilitation may properly be the responsibility of the group).
    The question is how to establish and encourage a good atmosphere by actions taken at the lab level, at the departmental level, at the university level, and at the governmental level. A research group that shares its results can certainly get a lot more done, so it is worth instituting a systematic approach that makes it bad for everyone if bad apples are tolerated.
    At the lab level, it seems more about personality, whereas at higher levels it is more about systems. At the government level funds could be made to depend in part on the level of self-reported satisfaction with ethical standards. If everyone in a group is willing to assert (anonymously and non-specifically) that the ethical standard is high, fine, but if a fraction of people feel strongly enough to jeopardize their group’s funding by expressing dissatisfaction about their own group, that should have an impact on that group’s funding, and these statistics should be public. Malicious reporting that there are ethical shortfalls in a department must be managed, of course, but a good questionnaire would hopefully accommodate this issue.
    Which labs and departments are snake-pits is known through the academic grape-vine in any case, for those who are on that grape-vine, and has the consequence that good people are usually not willing to apply to those places, and good graduate students immediately apply elsewhere on completion. There are stories about departments that have slid into mediocrity and worse over 30 years without anything being done about it. Eventually something may be done by the university administration (unless that’s also screwed up), but the bad apples can be comfortably retired before it does. What’s needed is a faster feedback loop, which I think might have to mean public statistics and active censure, to make it not worthwhile for otherwise good people to tolerate bad behavior.
    It might make senior jackals think twice when considering stealing a junior academic’s research if they know that it might be reflected in a reduced lab or departmental “ethical standard index”. Gossip about possible reasons for a lab or department’s fall from grace might be bad, but silence might be worse.
    Alternatively, perhaps it’s time for RateMyLabEthics.com.

  17. #17 DrugMonkey
    February 21, 2008
  18. #18 John Scanlon, FCD
    February 22, 2008

    As a student of fossil and recent snakes of the non-human persuasion, I find some of the terminology used above to be offensive. I do get what you all mean though. I’m very glad to live in a country (Australia) with a less cut-throat general academic culture than the US, where outright exploitation of students by tenured researchers is accepted as the norm, or other places where corruption and nepotism pervade society and infect the sciences as a result. Medical research seems to be about as bad anywhere you go*, but in a small field like VP you need a big population to hide in if you’re going to throw away ethics in pursuit of Big Man status.
    *I’m familiar with a case in Australia where a professor was accused of misconduct by his lab manager, involving duplicated or made-up results in conference presentations and publications. This was several years after the student I know left the dysfunctional lab suddenly and, not knowing whom to trust, took the only original copy of several years’ experimental data. The same experiments that the lab manager claimed to have performed! The prof’s fault, it turns out, was not being corrupt, but being too distant from day to day work in the lab; it turns out the lab manager was the psycho who’d been terrorising the students, misrepresenting the prof’s instructions to them and their activities to him, then trying to claim credit for students’ work as well as making shit up. Of course, taking a good photocopy rather than the original would have established the facts just as well, but spending hours at the copier would have made it hard to keep the departure low-key (yes, the lab atmosphere was that bad).

  19. #19 Onkel Bob
    February 24, 2008

    I am the significant other to a research scientist. She’s a PhD/MD at a prestigious private university. Here’s the problem, she’s up for competitive renewal of her R01. The current study section chair is retiring and is to be replaced with one who is hostile to her science. Her findings in genetics run counter to the current mainstream thought. Part of the problem is the scientist in question works in fruit flies, (Drosophila melanogaster) whereas her work uses the mouse model. The other part is there are but a few in this field. Although she has been published in Development, the said hostile scientist blocked her publication in a more prestigious journal despite the enthusiastic support of other reviewers. This scientist is not interested in the furthering of knowledge, this scientist wants to protect a legacy.
    This grant renewal is being submitted outside of the study section, i.e., the grant officer agrees with her opinion that the head of the study section will not provide an unbiased review. As such, this grant will be reviewed by people that may lack the expertise necessary to offer a proper judgment. Unfortunately, this is the best she can hope for considering the situation.
    BTW – Dr. Stemwedel, if you want to discuss this situation in private, ping the e-mail. I’m a graduate student (nontraditional) at your (our) not as prestigious institution.

  20. #20 Lab Lemming
    February 25, 2008

    “I’m not alone, I’m sure, in walking into a conference and hearing my ideas recited verbatim by someone who had just reviewed my manuscript for Journal X.” (Will S.)

    “The only thing I’ve ever seen that helps is document, document, document; keep a verifiable paper trail of absolutely everything.” (Luna)

    Does anybody see a problem with using Luna’s tactic to solve Will’s problem? Once you find it, you will have one of the best arguments in favor of banishing anonymity and instituting open review procedures in the peer review system.

    Will S: Assuming they steal the conclusion but only some of the data, the brazen approach is to ask a non-question along the lines of, “Great work, we actually have additional evidence supporting this hypothesis in our paper currently in review at journal X.”

    Folks in competitive areas: Talk to your “competition” and consider defecting if a rival lab has a better culture. Later in your career, steer the dodgy students towards the dodgy labs, and the good ones away from them.

  21. #21 Will S.
    February 25, 2008

    @Lab Lemming,

    The brazen approach in VP does not address the fact that said speaker was the reviewer on that paper; when spoken by a student it is invariably received with the same attitude that Mr. Silberling displays when he refers to Martz and Parker and their allies as “mainly young, un- or under-employed workers…with a grudge.” The paper review process is, at least in VP, a source of the same malpractice. While I was a student, one of my papers was held up by reviewers for over two years while several of them prepared similar companion pieces. I was forced to grin and bear it when my “colleagues” inserted my paper into a theme volume with my older ideas sandwiched between their relatively new ones. While I agree with Luna to a certain extent–documentation is a great way of interfering with the original thefts in the lab–it is very difficult to control the dissemination of new work once the manuscript leaves your hands. This is where many of the largest thefts and infractions occur, and it’s the sticking point for Martz and Parker. For example, Silberling refers in his letter to Lucas’s duplication of the students’ research as “oversight”. This is a contemptible interpretation. Lucas and his cronies knew students were working on this topic; a true professional would have avoided even working on the subject while the student manuscripts were pending.

  22. #22 Lab Lemming
    February 27, 2008

    Will S.
    Was your speaker an official reviewer, or was he slipped the manuscript unofficially from an official reviewer?

    If the former, then a fully open review process would show that he had access to the student’s ideas before submitting his own paper. If the latter, then putting all submitted papers on a site like Arxiv would basically give everyone the same access, and the deniability of someone who claims not to have looked there before submitting their own work would become less plausible.

  23. #23 Will S.
    February 29, 2008

    @Lab Lemming
    My manuscript was evaluated by an official reviewer, chosen by the editor of the theme issue; by no coincidence, that reviewer was the graduate student of the editor of the theme issue. The reviewer was gracious enough to include her name on the review, and was therefore worked into the acknowledgements on my manuscript, some months before the graduate student’s abstract was published and the related presentation occurred at the geoscience conference. Meanwhile my paper and the theme volume came out over a year later. It included a paper written by the graduate student on the same topic.

    The publication record available in any article database or archive would only show which publication (or abstract) came first. An unusually diligent, focused researcher could determine which author did the work first; but knowing this detail will not change the dates on the reference list, and in research publication that’s really the bottom line. If a fellow researcher takes your research and manages to get it into print first, the ideas are eternally connected to your colleague, not yourself. Some six decades after her research on DNA structure was appropriated by her colleagues, many scientists still have never heard of Rosalind Franklin. While I like the suggestion of greater transparency in the review process, I think better amendments to the system must involve concrete, adjudicated consequences for unethical practices in academia. Sadly, both are probably unlikely.

  24. #24 science skeptic
    March 4, 2008

    Regarding the comment “I’m very glad to live in a country (Australia) with a less cut-throat general academic culture than the US…”: I have to say that having worked as a researcher in both countries, my experience is exactly the opposite, mate. However both our points of view are highly subjective and I doubt there are any stats available to back up either impression (though “Culture of Fear Reigns at Australian Research Lab”, Nature, 2006 makes interesting reading regarding some aspects of Australian culture). I also have to say that I am sorry that I have no choice but to agree with the depressing views of the state of ethics in science given above: if you are a junior researcher, the only thing whistle-blowing against a senior member of staff within your own organisation is likely achieve is a screwing of your own career. Unethical behaviour is not usually a one-off, there is typically a pattern of such behaviour and yet that person has still managed to become a senior researcher in the organisation…. think about it. Anyway, after you have tried to blow the whistle, and thus have nothing left to lose, one strategy, depending on the ethical violation in question, may be to contact the philosophy or ethics department in the nearest university to you that has one, and commission a succinct formal report into the matter that can be presented to the organisation. It costs less than a lawyer and may be slightly more effective since, as also pointed out above, many ethical violations are not actually illegal. At least you’ll feel fleetingly better that after hitting your head against a brick wall time and time again, someone highly qualified to assess these matters actually agrees with you. Also, despite their large deficiencies, even the most impenetrable of organisations do tend to keep records of everything: even if your document doesnt see the light of day immediately, there is always the hope that some time, maybe following a change of management or maybe as a result of just one too many examples of that researcher behaving unethically, your document may be used as evidence to correct some injustices. One thing you can be sure about though is that if you dont leave a paper trail, your bad experience will have been completely in vain.