To engage (or not) with the seemingly shady scientist.

Yesterday, I shared a conundrum with you and asked you what you would do as a member of the tribe of science if you got a gut feeling that another member of the tribe with whom you had limited engagement was shady, either disengage ASAP or engage more closely.

Today, as promised, I share my thinking on the conundrum.

You'll recall from my description of the situation that:

you are presented with a vibe or a gut feeling about this other person -- you are not witnessing obvious misconduct, nor are you privy to evidence of same.

Since this is a situation unfolding within the tribe of science, where the goal is to draw conclusions on the basis of data, there is an argument for staying engaged with the scientist who strikes you as shady. Staying engaged lets you gather some facts to see whether your gut feeling is accurate. It lets you find out whether the other scientist is actually doing stuff that he or she shouldn't be doing, whether there's a situation that needs to be dealt with -- or whether your impression was mistaken.

While staying engaged with the seemingly shady scientist can provide you with a better factual basis for your judgment, depending on your standing in the tribe of science it might also limit your access to others in the tribe who might help you if your gut turns out to be on the right track and whose judgment might be useful to you. (If you are a graduate student and the seemingly shady scientist is your advisor, for example, he or she can exercise a lot of control on the size of your scientific world.) As well, if it turns out that something really shady is going on, your association with this scientist could make you look shady, too. A scientist with more seniority and an established scientific reputation is probably not as vulnerable in an association with someone who turns out not to be trustworthy, but it could still hurt his or her reputation going forawrd.

There are probably ways to cover yourself going into an association with someone you don't completely trust -- including keeping meticulous records of experiments and conversations, cultivating some allies outside of this engagement whose advice you trust and who can vouch for your trustworthiness. However, if you have a real choice about whether to engage or to disengage, this may seem like an awful lot of work to take on in addition to what's involved in, say, just doing good science.

Maybe, then, you should just disengage from the seemingly shady scientist as quickly as you can. This way you don't waste your time or risk your reputation collaborating with (or training under) someone you don't trust. Preemptive disengagement in favor of a situation with a colleague, mentor, or boss who you do trust lets you just focus on the science.

But, it's not like you'll never bump into the person you judged shady -- he or she will still be doing research, publishing papers, going to conferences, mentoring students, and such. If you're suspicious on the basis of a vibe or a gut feeling (rather than factual data), what will happen with your future encounters with this person? How will you regard his or her papers, talks, students, and collaborators? If you end up reviewing his or her manuscript or grant proposal, how do you ensure that you give it a fair hearing, like you'd want for your own?

And this is where the pros and cons for you as an individual of engaging or disengaging with the seemingly shady scientist seem to be in tension with the interests of the community of science. As an individual, your choices about who to associate with can be shaped by your personal level of comfort and how you want to spend your time. But if a scientist in the community really is shady -- playing fast and loose with the data, the statistical analyses, the experimental controls, the IACUC, the IRB, compliance with the safety regulations -- arguably the community has an interest in knowing it so they can address the problem (whether by getting the shady scientist to clean up his or her act, or by putting him or her in time out).

However, if the smart thing for individuals to do is to steer clear of the shady scientist, how will the community get knowledge here, as opposed to the vague "I don't like the looks of that guy" impression?

You might figure such scientists will end up naturally isolated within the tribe of science, and thus that their shady doings won't end up impacting the rest of the community. But potentially, the shady scientist will still have associates. Some of these may be other shady scientists who don't have any problem with the way this one operates. Others, though, may be new members of the scientific community who don't have a good baseline for evaluating what counts as standard operating procedures in science. Still others may be scientists who don't pick up the shady vibe from the actually shady scientist, or who do not listen to their guts in the absence of hard evidence.

Vibes, after all, can be wrong. People who give you shady vibes can turn out to be completely trustworthy, and people who give you good vibes can turn out to be shady.

For both the individual scientist and the scientific community, the issue boils down to making your best decision in the absence of complete information.

There are some decisions -- to whom you will look for mentoring, with whom to collaborate on your next project -- where you don't have the luxury of being able to wait for complete evidence. If you have a choice about the scientists with whom you can engage, the cost to you of turning down an engagement with someone who seems to be shady may be a lot less than the cost of engaging, learning that they really are shady, and having to deal with the aftermath. Yet, if some of these seemingly shady scientists are part of your community -- people doing research in your area, working in your department, sending manuscripts to journals for whom you referee or submitting grant proposals scored by your study section -- then the community still needs to engage them. In those engagements, gut feelings are not enough.

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"As well, if it turns out that something really shady is going on, your association with this scientist could make you look shady, too."

Oh yes. I've avoided a few people in my department for just this reason... :/

Dr. Freeride, I'm shocked! SHOCKED I say!!!1 You totally stole my answer. Is it ethical to steal like that???
Or are you secretly inside my head?!
Or wait.... If you are me, and I am she as you are she as you are me and we are all together, and I am the Walrus... does this mean I've become Dr. Isis too?

1) You know, I didn't realize that ScienceBorg was a literal term for this set of blogs. I guess I misthought.

2) I would have a hard time staying around such a person, but if they're reasonably successful, they'll publish, maybe lots. People will read their work, and lots of them won't have any idea that maybe this person's work is not what it seems. They'll spend their time trying to reproduce it, find out it doesn't work, and won't know why. The time spent trying to futilely reproduce a bad scientist's work is time not spent in productive endeavors - in the worst case, it may make it harder for other researchers to be successful or prevent it entirely. So if a person is doing dishonest things, they are likely to impact the scientific lives of lots of other people if their nature of their acts is not known.

I knew this one guy, who'd always where his trenchcoat to the lab... I tended to stay away from him. I dunno if it was ethical or not.

I wait for the shady vibe to be substantiated by cackling and hand-rubbing.

From much unfortunate experience with shady scientists & engineers, even in a smallish "tribe":

Run. Run like the wind. Run hard, run fast.

By the time you stick around long enough to get real, hard evidence (and often these folks are slick enough to make things seem like a grey area for a long, long time), you will be in way too deep. I knew two very good scientists who stayed with a company run by a shady guy, in the hopes that they could change things, that if their science was really really good, everything would somehow turn out OK. One is now on the FDA debar list, one got out of science altogether before she could be blamed by Shady Guy. Shady characters are perfectly capable of spreading blame around and making it look like YOU are the screwup, not them. This is how they maintain their reputation, by shoving their screwups onto other people.

I found it really telling that in most cases of data falsification, either a student or a postdoc is blamed by the PI--and in journals that allow comments on articles about such instances (Science, Nature), many researchers indicated that they felt the students/postdocs were at fault regardless of the lack of detail in the investigations, or even when there were clear issues with training, supervision and review of the trainee's work. How many "idiot employees" can one professor have before someone realizes that the one thing all these idiots have in common is their PI? Apparently, infinite parades of them.

You, personally, will rarely have the power to bring the evildoer to justice. If you ARE in a position to argue that the scientist is shady and you DO have proof (let's say, you are as big a star or even shinier than the shady scientist), it's going to look at best like a simple philosophical disagreement between colleagues. You will have to have an awful lot of friends on your side, all of similar caliber, to effect any real discrediting of the shady guy. And due to your friends all having their own problems, they may not have time or energy to lend your cause. And they mostly will see it as Your Thing about That Person.

In some ways, a small "tribe" is more helpful--chances are, you have ALL worked with this person and got a creepy vibe or noticed something shady. It's therefore very easy for everyone to ostracize the person until they are subtly excluded from the field. Larger "tribes," not so simple.

No, younger investigators will not know the person is shady, and may well enter into partnerships innocent of the evil that lurks. Been there. It is your duty as a mentor to younger investigators to subtly (or not-so-subtly) steer your mentees in a more daisy-strewn direction, and encourage them strongly to learn from the (nasty, horrible) experiences that previous folks have had with that person. However, younger investigators tend to think it won't happen to me because I am special, and go that route at their peril.

I believe it's worth thinking about how the continued employ of shady characters generating irreproducible results hurts science as a whole. Honestly, I went to a Big Pharma conference last year, and the common refrain was, "Assume the literature is nothing but lies." Including all the basic science out of academia. That fits with all the ex-academics I've seen wash out of industry because they can't make anything that works.

We are talking around the edges of a general principle to live by; the Principle of Positive Procrastination. If you have doubts about taking some action, procrastinate. Most times, either the need for the action will disappear or you will come to understand that the action would have been a big mistake.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 02 May 2009 #permalink