Do fraudsters deserve a second chance?

labtimes 2-15In January, we were accused of bullying.

We were writing about a researcher who had 16 papers retracted for fake peer reviews; when we found out he was trying to find a new job in academia, we posted a follow-up that linked to his CV. Some commenters called the post “bullying,” “unethical,” and “over the line.” Not everyone agreed, but the back-and-forth prompted us to think about when such follow-ups were appropriate, and whether scientists who’ve committed fraud deserve a second chance.

We distilled those thoughts into our most recent column for LabTimes. In nutshell, the answer to the second question is an emphatic “yes.” (There is even a group of researchers working on controversial ways to rehabilitate such scientists.) The answer to the first question is a bit more nuanced, and has to do with how honest the scientists in question were about their pasts.

You can read the whole column here, and we welcome continued discussion.

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43 thoughts on “Do fraudsters deserve a second chance?”

  1. If the people hiring the fraudsters aren’t good enough to google the candidate, shouldn’t their bosses be told as well, and their assignments changed?

    Also you make a point about fairness. Does this include being fair to the fraudsters, by following each one of them in the same way and with identical attention? As time passes by, you will have to hire someone to search for everyffraudster daily. It sounds impractical and a tad creepy.

    1. Actually, this *is* a problem. It is not trivial to google fraudsters in Europe. Due to data privacy laws in effect, Google is legally obliged to removed links to “personal information” that is no longer “current” if the person named so requests. Some persons who have had the plagiarism in their doctoral dissertations documented on VroniPlag Wiki appear to have invoked this law to effectively bury the links so that, for example, potential employers don’t find these negative links. In the case at hand, there are so many articles on the topic, that despite the notice “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe”, the link to RW can still be found.

      In one case that VroniPlag Wiki has documented, a dissertation that was rejected from the Humboldt University in Berlin (in law) was accepted with minor modifications a year later by an Austrian university (case Rm). They, were apparently not aware of the previous attempt, but will not say if they have opened proceedings about academic misconduct or not, citing privacy laws. I personally do not think that privacy laws apply to published academic papers.

      We do need to think about how we deal with those who have committed academic fraud. It is up to the employer to decide if there is to be a second chance, not for anyone else. But it does mean that the employer needs access to all information in order to make a good decision.

  2. No, its not bullying, just preserving the scientific record of fraudulent activity.
    Who wants to be the unwitting perspective employer who hires a fraudster.
    My sympathy goes with them, not the fraudster.

  3. Meh, highly paid people get away with all sorts of very questionable conduct, most of the time no one does anything about it.

    I think this is more like a personal matter. It is important to publish the stories, today they are easily googleable, no need to step in between the person who committed fraud and the (either ignorant or complicit) potential employer. Until we see this sort of thing acted on against people that get paid a lot more than assistant professors in Pakistan, I feel it is more of a show rather than a sincere concern for the quality of science.

  4. 16 instances of fraud is not minor. It doesn’t matter how much people are getting paid (that’s a red herring and an attempt at distraction); if their work is being relied on, fraud can and does have serious consequences. If you know of fraud being perpetrated by people being paid a lot more than assistant professors in Pakistan and have not reported it, and it sounds like you might, you are a part of the “show” with little sincere concern for the quality of science.

  5. I don’t know. Do you know the whole story? Really? Sometimes people really do get caught up in desperate situations, or find themselves bumping, then bending, then breaking rules, all while trying to do the right thing in the midst of a host of conflicting demands. People break the law, get caught and serve their time. Then they have to either build a life again, or die. It is one thing to maintain a record of wrongs done–it’s another to mail out flyers to someone’s neighbors.

  6. No – Retraction Watch were not bullies.

    They might have been bullies if the individual in question had been applying for a job as an airline pilot or a shop manager or a fireman…

    But he wasn’t. He was applying for an academic job despite a history of academic fraud. There’s only a limited number of academic jobs. Had he got that job, another academic would have been left unemployed. An honest academic who never used fraud to advance their career.

    That would be grossly unfair. Let the fraudster find an honest job outside science. And leave science jobs for honest people.

  7. Good question.

    How about considering the question in the light of an analogous situation: Medical workers who commit fraudulent treatment (in many cases killing their patients).

    Would it be ethical for a whistleblower/watchdog to warn other medical facilities when a known bad actor applies for a job at a new facility?

    Consider just one case before you answer:

    “Charles Cullen worked in various nursing homes and hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Although he was “only” found guilty of 29 murders, Cullen alleges that he killed 40 people and attempted to kill far more. During his 16 years as a nurse, he was fired no fewer than five times, and forced to resign twice. Cullen’s chosen method of murder was a lethal injection, most often Digoxin, which was subtle enough that it helped him evade capture for almost two decades. He usually worked the night shift so that it would be easier for him to drug his victims. He was only caught after he went overboard and killed 13 patients in less than a year.

    “As with many of the other entries on this list, Cullen often chose older victims to avoid detection, although not exclusively—his youngest was 21-year-old Michael Strenko. Cullen claimed his actions were mercy killings. He avoided the death penalty by agreeing to help police with the investigation and was sentenced to 11 consecutive life sentences, or 397 years without parole.”

    Fired five times. Forced to resign twice. In a 16 year medical career, he murdered 40 and attempted to kill many more.

    Just like a fraudster, in fact, his actions were medical fraud, he relied on the system to protect him.

    Now consider the question: Is it bullying for an inside source to provide details about a fraudster’s prior activities?

    Ask yourself that question next time you’re in the hospital.

  8. I prefer consistency. If criminals deserve a second chance, why not fraudsters?

    And if the criminal is punished for his crime, pointing out to potential employers that this person was a criminal is bullying, imo.

    And the same holds for fraudsters.

    They still can be valuable to society as well as science.

    1. What’s the point in identifying misdeeds and miscreants, if the findings are hidden?

      “WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ chief watchdog has not publicly released the findings of 140 health care investigations since 2006, potentially leaving dangerous problems to fester without proper oversight, a USA TODAY analysis of VA documents found.
      It is impossible to know how many of the investigations uncovered serious problems without seeing the reports, but all concerned VA medical care provided to veterans or complaints of clinical misconduct.”

    2. Marcel,

      Virtually every job application in the US includes the question: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

      Is that question “bullying” too?

      Or is it completely justified due diligence on the part of an employer before entrusting valuable assets and reputation to an applicant?

      Would you like to know if your babysitter has even been convicted of child molestation? Or would checking out their background be “bullying” too?

      1. Kent Clizbe
        Marcel,Virtually every job application in the US includes the question: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”Is that question “bullying” too?

        No, the US is not a country where criminals do not get second chances. Marcel is obviously speaking from the point of view of a society where those second chances actually are granted.

        1. Also in the Netherlands your future employer can ask you to provide a ‘certificate of good behavoir’ (verklaring omtrent het gedrag), which you can get from the goverment. They keep a criminal record and if you’ve had relevant criminal offenses, you might not get the certificate for this particular job. I think the way it works is that your employed will not see what you did, but the goverment will look into your criminal record to see if there is any objection to practicing your future job.

  9. Most of us who have seen/read Les Miserables cannot help but empathize with Jean Valjen, the main character in the novel, who commits a serious crime early on, but who goes on to live a most noble life afterwards. Yes, I think some people deserve a second chance. The trouble is that it is difficult to know who the Jean Valjens are in the world of research misconduct or perhaps in all criminal areas. Nonetheless, I suppose that it is possible, even desirable, to generate some thoughtful general criteria for determining which types of cases merit a second chance, much like it is done here in the US criminal justice system in terms of how sentences are applied to first-time vs. repeat offenders, to felonies vs. misdemeanors, etc.

    I just see it as such a waste to have someone with all of those years of science training, experience, and skill to be banned from science for life when that individual still has the potential to make a significant contribution to humanity.

      1. Indeed!! Poor memory on my part; I doubt that anyone other than inspector Javert would have considered Valjean’s crime serious. However, perhaps the analogy may still be applicable to instances in which those lacking proper English writing skills plagiarize others’ text in order to better communicate their research.

        Just trying to save face here! 🙂

        1. I am by no means the expert, however it seems to me that this sort of forgiveness already exists for researchers without a pattern of misconduct. The ORI does not appear to care about you unless you engage in serious fabrication / falsification, and the NSF OIG closeout reports seem fairly gentle unless (verbatim) plagiarism leads to something much more serious. Do you believe otherwise? Personally, I see (verbatim) plagiarism as something desperate and sad, and feel terrible whenever I stumble across it.

        2. Perhaps my last response misses the point of your posting. With regards to RetractionWatch, if someone causes serious damage to the scientific record or has more than, say, three papers retracted, I do not consider it bullying to follow up on these individuals if these choose to remain in science. Furthermore, reporting the facts concerning a retracted paper should never be considered improper. However, I maybe would consider it bullying if there are follow up postings on an individual that leaves science, or if the person is a one time offender for something like simple to detect (verbatim) plagiarism of materials available on the internet. Perhaps RetractionWatch could take time at this moment to clarify their position on such issues.

          1. Neutrinosilk, you note that “if someone causes serious damage to the scientific record or has more than, say, three papers retracted, I do not consider it bullying to follow up on these individuals if these choose to remain in science”. Perhaps it is not bullying to follow these types of individuals for a time, but the question arises: If they are allowed to remain in science, for how long should they be followed/closely supervised? For example, some biomedical journal editors have proposed the idea of coming up with a database of known plagiarists that can be made available for others to check. Well, in addition questions of who should keep/maintain such a list, the question also arises as to how long an individual should be listed/followed. At one point has the perpetrator paid his/her debt to society?

        3. “…the question also arises as to how long an individual should be listed/followed. At one point has the perpetrator paid his/her debt to society?”

          In the best possible circumstance I personally would like to see a debarment-like process where any sort of “blacklisting” or “greylisting” is fully rescinded after some case-specific period of time and any kind of “following up” after this “debarment” period should be strongly discouraged by members of the scientific community. The trouble is that there is now an unprecedented push to publicize journal retractions (a good thing)… so perhaps the names of the authors on the rescinded manuscript could be redacted after some likewise appropriate period of time? More than anything else, the purpose of such actions would be to send a very clear message to future employers and colleagues that a person has “paid their debt” and are welcome to properly rejoin their respective scientific community. And wouldn’t you seriously consider hiring or having as a collaborator someone who withstood an incredibly high level of scrutiny for years without further incident?

          Perhaps high impact journals should take the lead on working out and implementing such measures?

          Once again I wish to express my hope that individuals who leave science will be left alone. I was terrified (and remain so) for the life and livelihood of a certain female researcher who was all over the news just months ago.

          1. I like your proposal, NeutrinoSilk. However, because of legal risks, I have serious doubts whether high impact factor journals or, for that matter, any other private entity would take up this cause. Perhaps what is needed here is something that has been proposed in the past here or in other forums: An agency (e.g., the WHO?) with solid financial backing from the international community, as well as with a wide international reach, to come up a meaningful and fair prosecutorial system that the major scientific organizations will agree with. Of course, easier said than done.

  10. There are scores of highly qualified scientists who never get first chances, much less second chances, to establish research programs. Maybe they should receive those opportunities to succeed instead of someone who has demonstrated that they are willing to stoop to unethical behavior (and may have gotten their first chance because of it).

  11. It was more the language of the post that came across as bullying. It took to belittling everything he said. Calling him out? Fine. But the systematic teardown of his and his CV went over the line.

    1. I agree. The problem was not pointing out that the person in question was applying for a new job in academia (which is relevant, especially if they’re trying to hide their past), but the way in which it was done.
      It’s the difference between saying: “Look, this known fraudster is trying to get a new job and shows no signs of being repentant.” and “Let’s all have a good laugh at the silly application letter this guy has sent”. One is journalism, the other is not.

    2. I fully agree with this. The tone of the post was most definitely wrong. Bullying is not just what you say or write, but how you say it. And personally I have noticed that RW’s lighthearted and slightly humorous postings have become more and more polemic. Not sure if this really serving their purpose. To me it just comes across as click-baiting. See e.g. Ivan’s last tweet: https://twitter.com/ivanoransky/status/575441327757856769

  12. Of course fraudsters deserve a second chance, but not in science. There is not enough place for the honest scientists, it would be a bit unfair to those. Moreover, a doctor or a lawyer convicted of malpractice loses the licence and is banned from working as such. With fraudulent scientists there is actually a very similar heavy punishment possible: revocation of the PhD title.

  13. What does a second chance mean? People are going to feel differently about each of the following:

    a. They get another academic/research job nearly right away, and continue on as if nothing ever happened
    b. They find a job outside of science for some years, then try to re-enter (presumably demonstrating good character over time, going to rehab, whatever)
    c. They work outside of science

    For most fraudsters, I think option C is as much of a second chance as they should have. It’s as good of a first chance as probably 75% of PhDs ever get. The exceptional fraudsters may deserve option B.

  14. I agree with RW’s conduct. If the person who has committed fraud was honest, he or she would bring it up in a job application and interview. It can be a lesson learned, no matter how soul-crunching it is to be reminded of the fraud and have to admit it again and again. Admitting one’s mistakes is crucial here.

    But if a person just hides something like fraud, then it’s another case of fraudulent behavior. Reason being that the past fraud is an important issue in a trust-based scientific community. It will influence future work and an employer should know about it, before others bring it up as a negative. Without knowing about the fraud it can damage research projects and the implementation of results, when critics point to the researcher who has committed fraud in the past. If it’s in the open, I think it becomes less of an issue, and could even turn into a strength (learned lesson, know what to look for, etc.).

    But I seriously wonder how many scientists who did commit fraud have the character necessary to admit their mistakes openly and without turning it into a narcissistic opportunity to grandstand. Just to admit it and focus on making a positive contribution to science.

  15. 1. If a person cheats, they deserve to be punished
    2. After they have served their time, whatever that is (cf ORI “punishments”), then let them be rehabilitated and given a 2nd try, but caveat emptor and watch them carefully. Remember “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus”

  16. Re. Your LabTimes post: I am quite fond of the idea that in Pakistan there are so many economists that your argument necessarily implies that an honest economist would remain unemployed.

    Otherwise, I agree. Retraction watch did the right thing.

  17. It would be curious to know COPE’s official standing on this issue given that there is a clear element of “ethics” or “moral” to it. In fact, this extremely important aspect of retractions is not discussed by Liz Wager in her latest paper that is being critiqued at PubPeer:
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/635356F351C3F2AC350E2FC3E934F5#fb26540

    As for the topic at hand, it appears as if the 16 counts of fraud by this Pakistani economist were detected in “one batch”. So, this would count as one strike, strictly speaking, based on 16 case studies. The way in which RW followed up on this individual’s career progress was simply investigative journalism (give or take some issues with tone), but other than that within the confines of what RW appears to employ as its standrad follow-up methodology to any story (nobody called foul when there were several follow-up stories to the Saad saga, so why this outcry about the Pakistani fraud?). So, I say, sure give him a second chance, but make sure that his current or future employees are fully aware of his past mis-deeds. They are adult and professional enough (we hope) to be able to then make a sufficiently good judgement and selection after weighing the facts and the risks.

  18. Indeed!! Poor memory on my part; I doubt that anyone other than inspector Javert would have considered Valjean’s crime serious. However, perhaps the analogy may still be applicable to instances in which those lacking proper English writing skills plagiarize others’ text in order to better communicate their research.

    Just trying to save face here! 🙂

  19. Usually misconduct results in the perpetrator being dismissed or resigning from their institution but there are examples where a rehabilitative approach has been taken. One of the most striking of these is the case of Terry Elton at OSU which is detailed here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Elton

    My personal feeling is that as scientists all we really have is our reputation. I don’t know if I could go on working somewhere with that kind of shame hanging over my head.

  20. Having seen a case in which someone was repeatedly found guilty of misconduct and moved on to the next place to do the same, I recognize the need to prevent this from occurring. However, I feel that Retraction Watch in itself serves this goal. If someone has been reported on here, it should show up in any google search of the person. Unlike some years ago when people could hide their misdeeds, and even make an illustrious career out of lies, this is no longer possible. Any reasonable place should do enough due diligence to check on them, and they would quickly find out there was a problem.

    In contrast, I do not think it is appropriate for the writers of this blog to effectively stalk people once they have been found guilty of misconduct. I prefer that such individuals never work in science again, but the bottom line is that they need to do some sort of work in order to live. Of course, it should be flipping burgers or cleaning toilets, and I’m frankly not opposed to putting them in jail. However, if someone hires them without doing enough of a background check to find them on Retraction Watch, that is on the hiring entity.

    The real problem is not that people hire without appropriate checks but rather that the results of so many investigations are kept secret by ORI and universities. The latter do this to protect the reputation of their institution, but I would argue that a place who would do the right thing deserves my respect more than one who allows a fraudster to continue in their antics.

  21. I completely agree with Leonid Schneider. Fraudsters have no place in science ever because the system depends on honesty and genuity as a prerequisite. The talk about second chance is rhetorics. The fraudster needs to be in a job where s/he can be controlled efficiently, whether this is Pakistan or elsewhere in the world. Science is about frinding the truth. If you disguise your retractions, you show (once more) that you are not committed to the truth.

  22. LS said: “Of course fraudsters deserve a second chance, but not in science. There is not enough place for the honest scientists, it would be a bit unfair to those.”

    There is no fundamental difference between forgiveness in science and elsewhere. If you give someone a second chance, it means s/he might get the job that another person (without past offense) might not get. Forgiveness/granting a chance always contains an element of unfairness against those who follow the rules. There is no absolute justice in forgiveness. You can discuss it from a religious point of view, or you can understand it in terms of economic theories, namely, that society as a whole may profit from a degree of forgiveness, even though a single person (such as a scientist who believes to be super-honest and who failed making it in academia) might perceive it as unfair.

    Who is going to decide, which fraudster should be remembered on RW and which one not? Is it going to be RW editors, or their commenters, and is it going to be pure chance who is attacked, and who not? As long as we deal with a Pakistani economic scientist, there is probably not much controversy.

    RW wrote in the title editorial: ““If he takes this job, an honest (most likely Pakistani) economist will be unemployed in his stead,” Neuroskeptic continued. “That’s unfair.””
    Isn’t it nice how Blogger N. cares so much about job chances of Pakistani economic scientists? Some of the commenters on RW seem to be driven more by their own perceived injustice and a general motivation to shoot against those standing in their own way. One has to be careful of which-hunts and lynch justice, then.

    RW also says in the title editorial: “Indeed, Retraction Watch has a category called “Doing the Right Thing” to commend researchers who correct the record even at personal expense. These authors should be rewarded, not punished and, in fact, evidence suggests that they do experience a sort of trust dividend among their colleagues”

    Well, I am not always impressed by the “doing the right thing” category cases of RW. I think the whole concept sounds so Kindergarten or preachy (“you’re such lovely boy, you did the right thing”) and is a somewhat disguised attempt by RW to push things into the direction they like.

  23. I feel that they had a second chance already: 15 “second” chances. And they published what has been found/claimed to be fraudulent research each time. And what “punishment” are we discussing here? Having their history presented again on a public website!

    Retraction Watch isn’t proposing a punishment; it is only presenting a public portion of their past career that an honest person should include in their job c.v., if with an explanation of why it happened and never would never happen again (or perhaps why it wasn’t fraud at all). It is up to their prospective employer to decide the truth and impact of this portion of the applicant’s history.

  24. “He lost that job when we contacted the CEO of that firm.”

    The issue, to me, is clarifying the mission of Retraction Watch: are they journalists, or are they something else? Journalists do not involve themselves in the stories they report, for obvious reasons. If Retraction Watch chooses to go beyond reporting science fraud news, that’s fine, but they should explain clearly what their objectives are and how they propose to achieve them–especially that they’re taking grant money.

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