Recently, I wrote a post about two researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) who were caught falsifying data in animal studies of immune suppressing drugs. In the post, I conveyed that this falsification was very bad indeed, and examined some of the harm it caused. I also noted that the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) meted out somewhat different penalties to the principal investigator (ten year voluntary exclusion from government funding and from serving in any advisory capacity with the PHS) and to her postdoc (three year voluntary exclusion from government funding and PHS advisory roles). Moreover, UAB had left open the possibility that the postdoc might work on other people’s research projects under very strict mentoring. (Owing to the ORI ruling, these research projects would have to be ones funded by someone other than the U.S. government, however.)
On that post, commenter Paul Browne disagreed with my suggestion that rehabilitation of the postdoc in this case might be an end worth seeking:
“While such an obvious departure from an experimental protocol — especially an in an experiment involving animal use — isn’t much of an ethical gray area, I think there’s something to be said for treating early-career scientists as potentially redeemable in the aftermath of such ethical screw-ups.”
You have got to be kidding.
We’re not talking about an honest mistake, or deviating from an approved protocol with the best of intentions, or excluding a few outliers from the analysis but rather a decade of repeatedly lying to their funders, their IACUC and to other scientists working in their field.
What they did almost makes me wish that science has a ceremony similar to the old military drumming out.
At the very least they should both be charged with fraud, and since they presumably included their previous falsified results in support of NIH grant applications it shouldn’t be too hard to get a conviction.
Believe me, I understand where Paul is coming from. Given the harm that cheaters can do to the body of shared knowledge on which the scientific community relies, and to the trust within the scientific community that makes coordination of effort possible, I understand the impulse to remove cheaters from the community once and for all.
But this impulse raises a big question: Can a scientist who has made an ethical misstep be rehabilitated and reintegrated as a productive member of the scientific community? Or is your first ethical blunder grounds for permanent expulsion from the community? In practice, this isn’t just a question about the person who commits the ethical violation. It’s also a question about what other scientists in the community can stomach in dealing with the offenders — especially when the offender turns out to be a close colleague or a trainee.
In the case of a hard line — one ethical strike and you’re out — what kind of decision does this place on the scientific mentor who discovers that his or her graduate student or postdoc has crossed an ethical line? Faced with someone you judge to have talent and promise, someone you think could contribute to the scientific endeavor, someone whose mistake you are convinced was the result of a moment of bad judgment rather than evil intent or an irredeemably flawed character, what do you do?
Do you hand the matter on to university administrators or federal funders (who don’t know your trainee, might not recognize or value his or her promise, might not be able to judge just out of character this ethical misstep really was) and let them mete out punishment? Or, do you try to address the transgression yourself, as a mentor, addressing the actual circumstances of the ethical blunder, the other options your trainee should have recognized as better ones to pursue, and the kind of harm this bad decision could bring to the trainee and to other members of the scientific community?
Clearly, there are downsides to either of these options.
One problem with handling an ethical transgression privately is that it’s hard to be sure it has really been handled in a lasting way. Given the persistent patterns of misbehavior that often come to light when big frauds are exposed, it’s hard not to wonder whether scientific mentors were aware, and perhaps even intervening in ways they hoped would be effective. In commenting on the Luk Van Parijs case in an article in the Boston Globe, one research integrity expert noted just such a pattern:
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.
(Bold emphasis mine.)
It’s the building over time of ethical violations that is concerning. Is such an escalation the result of a hands-off (and eyes-off) policy from mentors and collaborators? Could intervention earlier in the game have stopped the pattern of infractions and led the researcher to cultivate more honest patterns of scientific behavior? Or is being caught by a mentor or collaborator who admonishes you privately and warns that he or she will keep an eye on you almost as good as getting away with it — an outcome with no real penalties and no paper-trail that other members of the scientific community might access?
It’s even possible that some of these interventions might happen at an institutional level — the department or the university becomes aware of ethical violations and deals with them “internally” without involving “the authorities” (who, in such cases, are usually federal funding agencies). I dare say that the feds would be pretty unhappy about being kept out of the loop if the ethical violations in question occur in research supported by federal funding. But if the presumption is that getting the feds involved raises the available penalties to the draconian, it is understandable that departments and universities might want to try to address the ethical missteps while still protecting the investment they have made in a promising young researcher.
Of course, the rest of the scientific community has relevant interests here. These include an interest in being able to trust that other scientists present honest results to the community, whether in journal articles, conference presentations, grant applications, or private communications. Arguably, they also include an interest in having other members of the community expose dishonesty when they detect it. Managing an ethical infraction privately is problematic if it leaves the scientific community with misleading literature that isn’t corrected or retracted (for example).
It’s also problematic if it leaves someone with a habit of cheating in the community, presumed by all but a few of the community’s members to have a good record of integrity.
But I’m inclined to think that the impulse to deal with science’s youthful offenders privately is a response to the fear that handing them over to federal authorities has a high likelihood of ending their scientific careers forever. There is a fear that a first offense will be punished with the career equivalent of the death penalty.
Permanent expulsion or a slap on the wrist is not much of a range of penalties. And, I suspect neither of these options really address the question of whether rehabilitation is possible and in the best interests of both the individual and the scientific community.
Earlier this month, I wrote:
It’s true that scientific training seems to go on forever, but that shouldn’t mean that early career scientists are infantilized. They are, by and large, legal adults, and they ought to be striving to make decisions as adults — which means considering the potential effects of their actions and accepting the consequences of them. I’m disinclined, therefore, to view ORI judgments of scientific misconduct as akin to juvenile criminal records that are truly expunged to reflect the transient nature of the youthful offender’s transgressions. Scientists ought to have better judgment than fifteen-year-olds. Occasionally they don’t. If they want to stay a part of the scientific community that their bad choices may have harmed, they have to be prepared to make real restitution. This may include having to meet a higher burden of proof to make up for having misled one’s fellow scientists at some earlier point in time. It may be a pain, but it’s not impossible.
Indeed, I’m inclined to think that early career lapses in judgment ought not to be buried precisely because public knowledge of the problem gives the scientific community some responsibility for providing guidance to the promising young scientist who messed up. Acknowledging your mistakes sets up a context in which it may be easier to ask other folks for help in avoiding similar mistakes in the future. (Ideally, scientists would be able to ask each other for such advice as a matter of course, but there are plenty of instances where it feels like asking a question would be exposing a weakness — something that can feel very dangerous, especially to an early career scientist.)
If no errors in judgment are tolerated, people will do anything to conceal such errors. Mentors who are trying to be humane may become accomplices in the concealment. The conversations about how to make better judgments may not happen because people worry that their hypothetical situations will be scrutinized for clues about actual screw-ups.
None of this is to say that ethical violations should be without serious consequences — they should. But this need not preclude the possibility that people can learn from their mistakes. Violators may have to meet a heavy burden to demonstrate that they have learned from their mistakes. Indeed, it is possible they may never fully regain the trust of their fellow researchers (who may read their papers and grant proposals with heightened skepticism in light of their past wrongdoing).
However, it seems perverse for the scientific community to adopt a stance that rehabilitation is impossible when so many of its members seem motivated to avoid official channels for dealing with misconduct precisely because they feel rehabilitation is possible. If the official penalty structure denies the possibility of rehabilitation, those scientists who believe in rehabilitation will take matters into their own hands. To the extent that this may exacerbate the problem, it might be good if paths to rehabilitation were given more prominence in official responses to misconduct.