Jana Rieger is a researcher in Edmonton, Alberta. And now, she’s also a novelist. Her new book, “A Course in Deception,” draws on her experiences in science, and weaves a tale of how greed and pressures to publish can lead to even worse outcomes than the sort we write about at Retraction Watch. We interviewed Rieger about the novel.
Retraction Watch (RW): You tell the book from the point of a view of a fictional first-person narrator, a sleep researcher in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You, too, are a researcher in Edmonton. Is there any Jana Rieger in Mackenzie Smith?
Jana Rieger (JR): As a writer, there are always parts of what we’ve experienced and perceived that get portrayed onto our characters. In the case of Mackenzie, there are certain aspects of what she’s going through that come from situations that every academic would encounter, such as what it’s like to publish a required number of papers per year, to be coming up for tenure and promotion, to endure the pressure of getting grants in order to keep your position and keep your lab running, and to have students at your door who aren’t doing so well in your classes. All those things informed Mackenzie’s character.
There were some darker aspects of Mackenzie’s academic life that evolved from true stories about research misconduct that were published in the medical literature or in the media. The more fascinating bits and pieces of those stories were applied to Mack’s character.
Regarding sleep research, I’m not a sleep researcher, but rather a head and neck cancer researcher. The idea of the lab rats in ‘A Course in Deception’ came from a real life experience of mine at a conference on computer modeling of the head and neck structures at the University of British Columbia. One researcher presented on modeling the airway of lab rats who had been fattened up to study the relationship between weight and sleep apnea. Several fascinating facts were shared about how these lab rats adapted to their weight gain and started to sleep standing up so that they could breathe. As soon as I heard that story, Mack, who had been a character hanging around in my head, took off and ran with the idea.
Perhaps the biggest similarity between me and Mackenzie is the dog, Diesel, who was based on my dog, Max. He loved hanging out with me in a hammock while I was writing ‘A Course in Deception.’
RW: In your novel, things are not usually what they seem. In the tradition of mystery novels, the trustworthy aren’t always trustworthy, and some of the apparent villains turn out not to be. Is that a device, or do you think that’s how it sometimes is in science?
JR: It’s not just in science that people are not what they seem. The masks that people wear in any walk of life create distractions in the thoughts of others’ minds. I found it intriguing to look at stories in the literature about people who have committed research misconduct. Very often what was written about these prominent and accepted subjects was that they were well loved in their labs, were outstanding citizens, and were nominated for prestigious awards such as Nobel prizes or the Order of Canada. Yet, those recognitions were sometimes proven to be deceptions.
It’s important to examine the reasons why we see others as villains. Sometimes, thoughts can be planted by what others’ say, whether verbally or through media. Other times, we may truly be victims of the so-called villain. In the case of Anbu in ‘A Course in Deception’, he was painted as a villain by the media. Only the closest associates were able to discern the truth.
RW: Last year, we interviewed another scientist who wrote a novel that involved scientific misconduct. But she didn’t see hers as a novel about misconduct. “It is about life in biomedical science,” she said. How do you see your book?
JR: The novel, ‘A Course in Deception’, is not only a story about research misconduct, but also about deception in life in general. Being deceived is an experience that everybody can relate to. However, being deceived by your medical care provider because of greed and ego is an extraordinary breach of trust. The consequences could be lethal.
When stories of misconduct in medical research are exposed in the media, consumers of that information are often left with many questions about how such a thing could happen. I see ‘A Course in Deception’ as a story that is written to give readers of all kinds a glimpse into some of the contributing nuances of health research that may not be immediately apparent.
RW: Scientists sometimes prefer to keep their personal lives separate from their science, but for various reasons, Smith is unable to. Is that more like reality in science?
JR: It is somewhat a myth that we can keep our personal lives separate from professional lives. Who we are as human beings will affect what we’re doing in the lab. For example, those with high standards and high levels of trustworthiness will not sacrifice their ethics and morals, and forget about the oath they have taken, when academic pressures descend upon them. The opposite may be true for those who bend the rules in their personal life. In the afterword, Toviyah talks about the masks we wear and how those might change with the circumstances into which we are placed. Yet, behind all those masks there’s a true being that will emerge, and that being is always from the core.
RW: The events in your book are covered by a (fictional) local reporter, and also by (a fictional) Retraction Watch. What role do you think the media has in these cases, and how good a job are they doing?
JR: There have been cases where institutions only acted on complaints of misconduct once the media exposed the story. Cases that are reviewed only at an institutional level are at risk for getting covered up, especially if we’re dealing with a high profile researcher who’s bringing in substantial research funding. The media is really important for bringing cases like these to light.
Internet media like ‘Retraction Watch’ play a key role in reporting the facts. The world of fake news is dangerous. Malicious attacks on unmonitored internet sites hold real potential to hurt an academic’s career. Whereas, if we have places that are reputable, well-established news outlets, we’re more likely to get the real story. ‘Retraction Watch’ has gained the reputation of bringing awareness to the topic of scientific misconduct in a way that we’ve not had before.
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