Adventures in Ethics and Science

Yesterday I published a post with suggestions for ways junior scientists could offer some push-back to ethical shenanigans by senior scientists in their field. While admittedly all of these were “baby-steps” kind of measures, the reactions in the comments are conveying a much grimmer picture of scientific communities than one usually gets talking to senior scientists in person. For example:

[N]one 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.

So now, I’d like to have a word with the senior scientists.

Where the hell are you?!


In your field, is it the case that senior people never take advantage of junior people — never sink their grant proposals to protect their own scientific turf, never steal their results or ideas, never cut them out of credit, nothing but scientific good will all around?

If so, please advise of us your field so the budding scientists looking for an optimal experience know where to go.

Or, do you hear the occasional complaint within your field about senior people who take advantage of junior people, or who fudge their data, or who engage in other practices that you think it would be better not to engage in?

What do you do when you hear these complaints? I’m not just asking what kind of advice you give to others who might be making these complaints — I’m asking what do you do?

Do you have first-hand knowledge of people in your field working outside of “best practices” (even if what you’re seeing probably falls short of official definitions of scientific misconduct)? How do you respond to what you see, and why do you respond the way you do?

Do you have a close colleague who has a reputation as dancing on the edge of ethical behavior (or even of crossing the line from time to time)? Does this ever come up in your interactions with this colleague? If so, what do you say about it to him or her? If not, why not?

Do you think getting along with your senior colleagues, your administrators, your bosses, should take priority over making sure all those colleagues are playing by the rules (which is to say, doing good research, presenting truthful results, and not taking advantage of other scientists in the process)?

If you’re committed to the idea that people ought to play by those rules, are you doing anything to make things harder for people who don’t? Are you doing anything to help your fellow scientists — especially the junior ones — when they stand up to misbehavior?

I keep hearing — and I really believe — that most scientists are serious about doing good science and behaving ethically. Let’s hear from some of those good scientists at the top of the food chain that the game isn’t run by the scoundrels.

Comments

  1. #1 Larry Moran
    February 19, 2008

    In your field, is it the case that senior people never take advantage of junior people — never sink their grant proposals to protect their own scientific turf, never steal their results or ideas, never cut them out of credit, nothing but scientific good will all around?

    I’d hesitate to say never but off the top of my head I can’t think of any examples where senior scientists have taken advantage of junior ones.

    If so, please advise of us your field so the budding scientists looking for an optimal experience know where to go.

    Biochemistry.

  2. #2 Dave S
    February 20, 2008

    Student scientist:
    Some of my colleagues and I have received scathing, scientifically unfounded reviews that resulted in our manuscripts being rejected for publication. Interestingly, upon writing a rebuttal letter to the corresponding editor, they were re-accepted for further review.

    After talking with others, it seems the smaller your field, the more likely you are to encounter these unfortunate experiences.

  3. #3 S. Rivlin
    February 20, 2008

    I am not trying to promote the book I wrote on the topic (http://www.brownwalker.com/book.php?method=ISBN&book=1581124228), however, many of the points you have listed in your post, Janet, have been covered by me, a senior scientist, in this book.

    Nonetheless, let me be very specific:
    1. When I first approached senior colleagues and administrators in my institution for advice of how to deal with a case pf plagiarism committed by two departmental chairmen, I was discouraged to pursue any action, since they were concerned about the effects of such actions on my career. Others were more blunt, joking about me being naive and questioning why the hell I’m willing to put myself through this trouble.
    2. Most of those who heard about my complaint, once I filed it, chose to stay away from me and except for one colleague who stood by me and offered both advice and support, I was alone and isolated throughout the ordeal.
    3. Other colleagues, both senior and junior, especially from the departments of the two chairmen I accused of wrongdoing, had circled the wagons and launched an attack against me of interfering with their departmental affairs and negatively affecting their performance. Clearly, they were pressured by the chairmen themselves and seniors scientists who had the most to lose if the case would be proven, to defend and support the accused. Thus, getting along with the poeple at the top, at least in my case, was more important for the colleagues of the top poeple than making sure they play by the rules.
    4. Every time a case like mine is ending with the culprit not being punished and when the whistleblower ends up with paying a high price for his/her actions, the will to blow the whistle in the future by others is dwindling.
    5. In my case, I took an action in order to protect a junior scientist (a graduating doctoral student. When I first approched the student with the “news” that his doctoral thesis was plagiarized by the chairmen of two departments (both had served on the student’s thesis committee), his first reaction was “wow, do you really mean they copied my words in my thesis on a grant proposal? I feel honored.” The student never filed charges, since he was fearing retributions from the two chairmen and had nothing to gain from it.

    I know all this sounds bleak and discouraging. I also know that I survived this ordeal, despite the heavy bleeding, because I was a tenured professor at the time (I am now an emeritus professor). Non-tenured, junior faculty whistleblowers have no chance of surviving in most academic institutions. This is, unfortunately, the reallity in today’s competitive atmosphere for research dollars, which trumps the value of good and ethical scientific research.

  4. #4 revere
    February 20, 2008

    I’m not sure how to respond here. I was a Department chair for a long time (measured in several decades) and I considered it part of my job to be a role model for younger colleagues. We talk often in the dept. about ethical issues and I have made it a point I don’t want my name on any paper I haven’t done significant work on (I’ll admit there have been times when that has happened but not at my request). I also work in a field where research is done in teams and often in collaboration with other groups, so maybe that’s why I am not aware of a lot of bad behavior. But maybe I don’t know about it? Possible. I have a reputation for being oblivious.

    So I don’t have either a lot of advice or a lot of experience. I’ve only had one author priority fight in a forty year career, and that was over primacy for one of my students, not for myself. My advice is to try to do the right thing yourself, praise others publicly and loudly for doing the right thing, give positive feedback when you see someone doing the right thing, and make it clear to younger colleagues you don’t think much of those who don’t do the right thing. Since I am in a safe position in my career I won’t presume to give those who are less safe advice about how they should confront others. Before you do anything, try to put yourself in their shoes. Maybe it isn’t as bad as it appears.

    Or maybe it is. Sigh.

  5. #5 Abel Pharmboy
    February 20, 2008

    I’m not as senior as revere but I am what could be considered mid-career. The vast majority of my academic years have been been in highly supportive, small departments at academic medical centers of state universities; not top 10 but 50-ish and 20-ish, respectively. Perhaps the stakes weren’t as high at those places than at top 10 institutions but ethical behavior was valued highly, senior faculty supported (but did not exploit) junior faculty, and graduate students and postdocs felt that they were largely treated equitably.

    The only issue I know of that came to a point of academic misconduct investigation was the dubious business practices of a physician-scientist with the accusation coming from another, both tenured.

    However, these infrequent events didn’t keep both universities from establishing an ombudsman office under Ethics Officer where allegations of misconduct could be aired, confidentially at first. I am honestly not sure how long the issues remain confidential, of course.

    I consider myself to be a faculty member who is pretty engaged with students and junior faculty so I’d think that even stories over beers would have been shared with me if misconduct or exploitation was occurring. Perhaps I have just been very fortunate to have not been in environments where such behavior was rampant or, quite possibly, my head was somehow in the sand.

    Wish I had more for you and your readers, Janet.

  6. #6 Anonymous
    February 20, 2008

    I’m the same anonymous from the other post.

    I can’t say I’m a senior scientist, but I’m not exactly junior either. In the experience I mentioned in my comment on the other post, I did try to do something about one person in particular who made a career out of stealing other people’s work.

    With a coworker who was a very senior person, we actually got a tape of the thief quite explicity taking credit for work that he didn’t do, and throwing a tantrum when it was pointed out to him. (We weren’t secretly recording; the call was being recorded with the knowledge of everyone involved, for the benefit of one coworker who couldn’t attend.)

    Even with the tape, plus multiple senior researchers willing to come forward as witnesses of multiple instances of his theft, the lab management refused to take any action. Since then, he has been promoted into a position where he gets to “oversee” the work of junior researchers, which puts him into a situation where junior researchers at the lab are *required* to show him their work before it’s been published or presented to anyone else.

    His publication rate has increased significantly since his promotion.

    I no longer work for that lab. But I know that if I come forward openly to accuse this guy, that it will go nowhere; he’s well-known and well-liked outside of the lab. And the lab management won’t do anything about him, even though they’ve been presented with reams of evidence about his behavior. And anyone who still works for the lab who came forward publicly to support an accusation against him would be fired.

    With the kinds of power-relationships that exist within a research community, it’s just *hard* to make an accusation against a well-known figure stick. That gets even worse when that person is in a leadership position within an institution. The nature of the system makes famous senior people close to untouchable.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    February 21, 2008

    Ping.

  8. #8 S. Rivlin
    February 21, 2008

    Anonymous’s experience is not unique. The fact that the majority of research scientists are not aware of similar incidents in their institutions could very well be the outcome of a successful cover-up by administrators in these institutions. As much as I hate this thought, the wall of silence, so typical of police departments, probably exists also in research communities.

  9. #9 Jenny F. Scientist
    February 21, 2008

    I’m a biochemist. Larry, your colleagues must be much nicer and more ethical than mine.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    February 21, 2008

    I am a mid-career scientist who can give you some good news. Not that there is no misconduct in my field, but rather that when misconduct is discovered people will do something about it.

    I have referred previously to my own case. Brief summary: a group of authors submitted a manuscript to the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar Terrestrial Physics in which several paragraphs were copied verbatim from one of my papers. As a referee on the manuscript, I drew the editor’s attention to this fact, and the editor rejected the paper. Two weeks later, the authors submitted a slightly revised (but still infringing) manuscript to Annales Geophysicae, which published the paper. Upon discovering the published version I complained to the editors. The result was the following editorial (which has now emerged from behind the paywall):

    http://www.ann-geophys.net/25/1/2007/angeo-25-1-2007.pdf

  11. #11 jdn
    February 21, 2008

    So what I am getting from all of the posts on the last two blogs is that the guys who protested getting their graduate work on aetosaurs plagiarized (http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2008/01/paleontologists_behaving_badly.php) should just take it and should not expect any backup from senior scientists in their field? I have been following this case with interest and in reading the provided materials (http://www.miketaylor.org.uk/dino/nm/index.html) feel that they have put together a solid case. Unfortunately it does not seem like their community, or at least many of the senior scientists in their field, are backing them up. What kind of message does this send to grad students looking to enter that field? Even worse it does not appear that any field provides support for such cases. I have not been a student for a long time but I remember how important that very first research project was, especially because it was the only one you had. Jobs are scarce in some fields and this may be your best shot at securing employment. What right does some senior scientist (who is probably either faking their way along or is out of ideas) have to take that from them? In the aetosaur case it looks like the scientist in question isn’t even the advisor of the ‘victims’ and a little bit of investigation (New Mexico Museum website) shows that this person has reportedly published over 500 papers!

  12. #12 CC
    February 21, 2008

    I’m a biochemist. Larry, your colleagues must be much nicer and more ethical than mine.

    I had to laugh at that one, also. Do the words “acrylamide poisoning” ring any bells?

    In general, both this and the earlier “biggest snakepit” discussion strike me as pretty poor ways to learn anything meaningful about broad trends in fields. I really hope that no one makes a decision about what field to go into based on a handful of anecdotes from commenters with a range of axes to grind and no knowledge of other fields.

    I also can’t help but gently wonder whether an expert on scientific ethics shouldn’t already know something about questions like “What do you do when you hear these complaints? I’m not just asking what kind of advice you give to others who might be making these complaints — I’m asking what do you do?”

  13. #13 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 21, 2008

    CC, I’m having trouble figuring out what your precise objection is here. Given that I don’t have an extensive surveillance network in every science lab, I have to rely on people’s reports of what they see and what they do. Given that quite a lot of people lower in the scientific hierarchy report their personal experiences in venues like blogs, I asked whether anyone further up in the hierarchy could chime in with their personal experiences, to see how these fit together.

    Is this a proper sociological study of the situation? Of course it isn’t. But it might be an encouragement for people to think about their interactions with their scientific peers — especially the instances where they say nothing about a concern instead of saying something.

    There aren’t any reliable data on the prevalence of scientific misconduct (not just what’s been reported and investigated), so whether you think bad behavior is really low overall or really high overall, it’s almost certain that you’re pulling your conclusion out of thin air. However, our hunches about what other people are doing (or not doing) can do a lot to change the atmosphere of a scientific community, and can have big effects on the kinds of cooperation that scientific inquiry (including the discussions that happen after findings are published) requires.

  14. #14 S. Rivlin
    February 21, 2008

    Janet,

    No one knows what is the prevalence of scientific misconduct. Unlike law-breakings that are routinly reported to the authorities and where the victims usually publically complain about them, scientific misconduct is done in secrecy, where the criminal usually plans ahead not only the crime itself, but the best methods to cover it up. Scientific misconduct is not a crime of passion or a misdeed executed by a teenager in the spare of the moment; scientific misconduct frequently is a misdeed of a respected scientist who’s the last one to be suspected of such behavior. That is why when we first hear of a respected scientist being caught with his/her hand in the coockie jar we tend to dismiss it as a personal vendetta by the accuser, choosing not to believe it.

    My experience, and I confess it is limited mainly to one institiution and one international scientific organization, along with the dozens of conversations, discussions and written correspondences with others who have witnessed scientific misconduct in their institutions, persuades me that the prevalence of the problem is much larger than we know or are willing to admit.

  15. #15 CC
    February 22, 2008

    Given that quite a lot of people lower in the scientific hierarchy report their personal experiences in venues like blogs, I asked whether anyone further up in the hierarchy could chime in with their personal experiences, to see how these fit together.

    Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe I simply don’t understand what a philosopher and “ethicist” does, but shouldn’t you be doing that before you become an expert on scientific ethics and teach courses on the subject?

    I apologize if I’m misinterpreting your tone, but it seems like you’ve been treating ethics as a purely theoretical matter right up until the previous post. I’m surprised and mystified, not because you’re a specialist in science (it’s hardly unusual to meet “experts” on research who have never spoken to a postdoc), but because you have a PhD in chemistry!

  16. #16 Luis
    February 22, 2008

    Although plagiarism is just one type of misconduct discussed here, it seems that the technology already exists to catch examples in which large portions of text are copied verbatim. Many universities require students to submit writing assignments to sites such as Turn-It-In.com to ensure the work is original. Certainly with the prevalence of journals requiring electronic submission it would be easy to carry out simlar checks on submitted manuscripts. This reduces the need for reviewers to be familiar with the word-for-word text from every article within their area. Perhaps some journals do this already, but since I am not actively involved in the publication side of things I do not know this.

  17. #17 bill
    February 23, 2008

    shouldn’t you be doing that before you become an expert on scientific ethics and teach courses on the subject?

    Huh? Don’t you have that bass-ackwards? Isn’t it exactly what we expect of experts, that they master the available material and then go looking for more, in whatever form or medium it may be found?

    You seem to be asking that Janet know all the answers before she ever asks a question — which is particularly odd given the informal nature of this forum (blogging).

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