On Tuesday, we reported on the case of Adam Savine, a former graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis who was found by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to have committed misconduct.
Today, Blythe Bernhard, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has an illuminating Q and A with Todd Braver, whose lab Savine worked in. Savine’s former mentor offers a few interesting details about the investigation into his former student.
Braver tells the paper that he’d had doubts about the integrity of Savine’s data as the student was preparing for his dissertation defense in August 2012:
…I was beginning to have some suspicions about Adam’s ethical integrity, so I asked him to walk me through each step of his analysis and files, to make sure it met my satisfaction. He stalled on this for a while, which made me even more suspicious, but eventually made the files available — though seemed to be avoiding the “walking me through” phase. As a consequence, I started digging into it myself. I started to notice some surprising discrepancies. At first, I chalked this up to my confusion in decoding some of his files (w/o his assistance), but I decided I needed to confront him directly. I told him that I would not let him go through with his dissertation defense until I was satisfied that his data were legitimate, and that he would need to attest that they had not been compromised in any way. Eventually he acknowledged to me that we needed to call off the defense. I was incredibly shocked by this admission, but reported it at once to the Academic Integrity office at WUSTL, so that they could go through a full objective investigation.
Braver also says he was ignorant of the results of the inquiry until after the ORI posted its final report online. Although that has surprised some of our commenters, we did hear from a fellow student of Savine’s at Wash U who said that the university has maintained complete silence about the case. Here’s Braver again:
I’d like it to be clear that I was caught blind-sided and am pretty disappointed by the way that Adam’s data fraud has come to light. Although I believe it is important for there to be public acknowledgment of these cases and Adam’s wrongdoing in particular, the way it occurred was extremely unsettling to me. Specifically, I was not informed or forewarned by either WUSTL or ORI (the Office of Research Integrity) about the facts discovered in Adam’s case, nor that these would be reported by ORI on a publicly accessible website. You learned of the outcome of Adam’s case before I did, which I am pretty upset about — given that I was the one to report him in the first place.
Braver seems to understand that as a complainant, and therefore a witness, he could only be cleared of wrongdoing if the investigation proceeded independently of him. However, we know from reporting on these issues that the ORI has strict rules about who has a right to information during an investigation, and most institutions simply keep everything confidential until ORI makes its report. Institutional officials sometimes get a very brief heads-up to prepare them for media calls, but that’s not uniform, either.
Braver would like
both universities and the ORI…to work on ways to improve the procedures associated with investigation of research integrity violations, so that the collaborators and colleagues of a perpetrator of data fraud due not receive undue hardship or collateral damage.
Speaking of such potential collateral damage, in our earlier post we pointed out that a recent paper had cited two of Savine’s studies. Bernhard asked Braver about that paper, and he rejected the idea that tainted data might scuttle those findings:
The theoretical questions and conceptual issues were very similar, which is why it served as an important follow-up. The positive results of the 2013 paper are very reassuring to me, in that they provide independent verification that the ideas and hypotheses pursued in Savine’s research are still valid ones. I do believe that we have enough of these independent verifications that the basic ideas will hold-up even if we discover that some of the specific findings reported in Savine’s papers are not valid or accurate.
Read the whole Q&A here.
Hat tip: Sanjay Srivastava