Sabotage of scholarly integrity

Science relies on integrity and trust between scientists, between scientists and public, as well as universities and their employees. The public needs to trust us to not waste their tax-money and to produce information that serves them. Universities need to trust that the employees don’t misrepresent the institution. The university employees trust the universities treat them fairly in employment and their bosses treat them fairly.

A case from the office of research integrity brought up a situation where primary investigator suspected falsification of data by a technician. A duplication of a result of an experiment was presented as a separate set of results. A method for detecting radiolabeled proteins by exposure to films was used. The duplication was detected as the method used results in varying imperfections in each film due to air bubbles, dust, or other artifacts on film. The two films were identical. That does not happen in this technique.

The technician was confronted by the primary investigator twice and denied the duplication at both times. The results were viewed by other scientists per request of the primary investigator and confirmed as copies. The case seems straight forward at first, but when you start thinking of the severity of consequences the parties face if action is taken, the “what if”s start to appear. What if the technician truly believes the results are from two separate experiments and does not knowingly lie about it.

The primary investigator takes on a huge amount of responsibility if the case goes forward. Their responsibility as a mentor to the technician would be to prevent the possible misconduct, by making them aware of the types of scientific misconduct and the consequences. As a result of misconduct the primary investigators integrity could be brought to question. The consequences for the technician could include sanctions like loosing their job. Also their integrity would be questioned and they might not be able to work in a laboratory again.

There are proper channels to go through for this kind of suspicion of misconduct. University research integrity office (ORI) is the first place to contact. Since there is physical evidence, it should be handled carefully as instructed by ORI. Since the technician is not a student, the case does not go through honor court system, but directly to  research integrity officer. The following graphic simplifies how Virginia Tech research integrity office processes misconduct allegations:

Misconduct handling. Modified from http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

Misconduct handling. Parties are requested to review reports from inquiry and investigation committees. Appeal of decision is made to university president and dismissal of charges is followed by restoration of reputation. Modified from http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/faqs/index.php

But what if this type of misconduct procedure does not apply? This was the case at University of Michigan in 2010. A postdoctoral researcher sabotaged a graduate students laboratory work by killing her cell cultures. The case was reported in Nature news in 2010 by Brendan Maher. Sabotage does not apparently fit the federal definition of misconduct (plagiarism of work, cooking up data, or falsifying data), and therefore won’t be addressed by any of the federal funding agencies.

http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/pdf/467516a.pdf

From the article: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/pdf/467516a.pdf

The graduate student had to go to the police to report the case as a crime. After the campus police had first interrogated her and performed lie detection test, they started investigation. The day after installing cameras to record the cell culture space, the postdoc was caught. Court ordered him to pay for lost reagents and court fees ($9400), serve probation and 40 hours of community service. His visa however prevented him from staying in the country after losing his job. Further hearings along with greater damage payments did not go through. Punishment did not reach its full scale. And the graduate student lost her trust in scientific community as mutually respective for a while. (Maher, 2010)

The investigated person leaving the country to either escape or to avoid immigration problems, is an additional issue. It is related to research as many researchers are in US on some kind of a visa with strict rules to allow them to stay in the country. This is just an extra layer of trouble on top of the core issue of ethical misconduct.

To me it is unbelievable, that sabotage is not considered research misconduct. It violates ethical codes of universities, hinders research on purpose, and in the end shakes everyone’s trust in scientific community in the long run. Could the federal definition be changed to include sabotage? And how would one formally document those cases, if acquiring physical evidence could potentially damage individuals rights (eg. filming without subject’s knowledge)? Do we have to involve the police in a clearly research related ethical issue? Or does that route actually provide harsher punishments for the perpetrators?

References:

  • Maher, Brendan. 2010. Sabotage!, Nature 467, 516-518 | doi:10.1038/467516a (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467516a.html)
  • Office of Research Integrity website, RCR casebook, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://ori.hhs.gov/rcr-casebook-stories-about-researchers-worth-discussing)
  • Research Integrity Office website of Virginia Tech, (accessed 4/7/2014 at http://www.research.vt.edu/research-integrity-office/)

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