Can we — or should we — rehabilitate scientists who commit misconduct?

nature 1 9 13Nature published an interesting piece yesterday, titled “Rehab’ helps errant researchers return to the lab.” Excerpt:

With the rapid growth of misconduct cases, some scientists are worried that preventative training in research ethics might not be enough. Nor will it be possible simply to dismiss all violators from science. Scientific rehabilitation, they say, will have to become a necessary tool for research-integrity offices.

“Sometimes these are very talented researchers,” says James DuBois, an ethicist at Saint Louis University, who leads the rehab programme, called RePAIR (Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research). “We believe that if we can equip them with certain skills, they can return to the field as very productive individuals.”

There’s some question, as Nature notes, whether RePAIR or other programs like it will be effective. But if  the comments Ivan saw in response to a tweet about RePAIR are any indication, there are a number of scientists wondering whether scientists found guilty of fraud deserve to be rehabilitated at all — and whether this was a good way for the NIH to spend $500,000 at a time when competition for grants is so tight.

Couldn’t disagree more,” wrote Princeton professor of genomics and evolutionary biology Leonid Kruglyak, which led to a number of comments including “But hard to justify spending money on a “rehabilitation” program when so many are out there seeking jobs!!!”

We of course want to know what Retraction Watch readers think, so please take our poll and leave comments, as you see fit:

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89 thoughts on “Can we — or should we — rehabilitate scientists who commit misconduct?”

  1. 3 grand for rehab? who would pay this (institute or individual)? This sounds to me like a money making scheme. And seriously, fraudsters know what they are doing is wrong without a course to educate them so. That money should be redirected to methods that prevent fraud, detect fraud, and persecute fraudsters.

    1. I suspect you meant “prosecute” rather than “persecute” but it is also an interesting Freudian slip. The purpose of detection of misleading data and the inappropriate presentation of data, and subsequent sanction should not include the persecution of the perpetrator/s. The purpose should be to correct the scientific record, to recover inappropriately allocated funding (towards those doing an honest job) and to discourage future attempts to present misleading data. It is worth at least considering the possibility that some sort of pathway to redemption may encourage mea culpas, whereas excessive sanction and persecution may perpetuate efforts to remain undetected or to hide behind legal threats and obfuscating ORI reports.

    2. Every thing is about money … misconduct for grant money … and now another brilliant ponzi scheme of curing the fraudsters through rehab!!!

  2. Punctual plagiarism and small data manipulation are one thing. One can have been taught the wrong way and commit minor offense like copying one phrase from a coleague or excluding one dot from a plot. However western blot splicing or extensive plagiarism and manipulation are the mark of professional predators and compulsive liars. These should be excluded at once.

  3. I don’t think one size fits all.
    1) Experienced P.I. found to have repeatedly done research misconduct. Don’t waste a penny.

    2) Grad student or young post-doc, who perhaps was badly supervised. Here, I think there is ambiguity. It may well be that much fo the fault should be ascribed to the supervisior or the institution.
    Suppose PhD supervisor A:
    a) Gets text from student B (actually plagiarized from other places)
    b) Gives it to post doc C, who puts it in a report and a paper authored by A, C, D, and student F.
    c) Gives it to student D, who includes it in dissertation supervised by A and B
    d)) Somebody gives it to student E, supervised by A, and included in their dissertation, too.

    Now, it seems reasonable that penalties might differ.

    1. Well, I don’t think students should be taking ‘paragraphs written by someone else’ and putting them in their dissertation.

      1. Well, of course not, but think about the training the students were getting, given that the professor clearly thought it was fine and such things happened repeatedly. How does one allocate blame:
        a) Student
        b) Prof.
        c) Department
        d) University

      2. Since universities take 30% or so from grants for overhead, I’d suggest in such cases that if an endemic problem appears, it might nice if somebody like ORI or NSF told the university: at your expense, give us a plan for training profs and students to do better, and show that it works, or face a sanction on new grants for a while, affecting some or all of the school. in this case, the prof believed that re-using others’ text was no problem if it was just introductory “boilerplate” rather than original research.
        Universities vary greatly in their attention to misconduct. This might get someone’s attention.

  4. Science is an iterative process based upon being wrong a lot of the time, and moving on from there. Perhaps the best reason for some sort of program for amelioration for error is that with multiple authors on a paper it can be difficult to ascertain both who committed the error and whether it was intentional or inadvertent.

    Having only the “nuclear option” of scientific exile, with no program for rehabilitation, likely will make it more difficult for scientists to acknowledge that error and take corrective action. Additionally, society has invested a great deal of time and money into training a researcher; it was be a shame to flush that down the toilet too readily. The research enterprise needs flexibility in addressing situations of error.

    1. Bob,

      I suggest we flush said sceince-fraud researchers down the toilet, and let the real researchers do their jobs.

      It’s not brain surgery!

      Patients of cardiovascular disease, liver disease, bone disease, kidney disease, blood diseases, cancer, eye problems, hearing problems – they don’t have the TIME to wait whilst these crooks are given a golden handshake welcome back!

      Patients are dying whilst we chatter chatter…lets get rid of the bad apples and all move on.

      Let the legal system deal with crooks, not fellow scientists and friends, some of whom may have been in on the original fraud.

      We do not want a sytem where one crook takes the hit on the promise he will be let back in the cookie jar next year.

      If we give a crook an excuse to return to his wicked ways, he will.

      Sooner or later.

    2. Having only the “nuclear option” would not work well either for aviation safety. From “Criminal Liability & Aircraft Accident Investigation”:

      ALPA does believe that criminal law has a place in aviation, but the consequences must be connected to the intent. An accident, by definition, is an occurrence that is not expected, foreseen, or intended. By this definition, then, an accident is not a crime. In English Common Law, a crime requires two elements—intending to commit an unlawful act and actually committing the deed. Most airline accidents are just that—unfortunate and unforeseen consequences of human error, not necessarily the pilots’.

      Those of us who have been around aviation for a while, especially on the military side, remember when a gear-up landing would ruin an aviator’s career. Still, pilots continued to land gear-up. Punishment was an ineffective deterrent against mistakes because punishment is effective as a deterrent only in the event of a premeditated act, and even then it may have both positive and negative results. Only when appropriate changes in aviation “systems”—design, operations, training, and many other aspects—are implemented will deficiencies be corrected and safety improved.

      Punishment (or the threat of it) also has an adverse effect on the conduct and quality of accident investigations. In a 1999 address to a U.S. congressional committee, former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall said, “My investigators have been stymied by the prospect of criminal prosecutions.…A number of our investigative activities have been suspended because most of the central players will not talk to us.” He was talking about a pipeline accident, but the problem is also present in aviation investigations.

      In the post-ValuJet era, individuals and organizations that are exposed to criminal liability will implement appropriate safeguards to try to mitigate such liability.

      The investigation into the maintenance issues surrounding the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 accident was stymied by prospects of prosecution.

      The willingness to cooperate with the NTSB may never be the same. Such a development clearly conflicts with the efforts that aviation experts make to enhance flight safety.

      Countries that have demonstrated a willingness to prosecute and incarcerate pilots and controllers tend to have worse accident rates than those that do not. This has been observed in parts of Latin America, certain European countries, and much of Asia and Africa. This unfavorable correlation does not necessarily imply cause and effect, but cannot be ruled out, either.

    3. Regarding the nuclear option: there is an interesting lesson here from the work of Elinor Ostrom and other economists who study common-pool resource management.

      To protect a shared resource where people have incentives to cheat, sustainable systems have to have a number of properties, including:
      1) At least occasional monitoring of behavior
      2) A justice system with a sliding scale of punishments, from slap-on-the-wrist to complete banishment.

      If one views the scientific literature as the shared resource, which is polluted and overexploited by various types of scientific fraud, then sites like this one and science-fraud are an important part of the monitoring. The justice system, however, seems to be currently lacking, but that does not mean that punishments for minor offenses should be severe! An escalating scale of punishments is important because light punishments for minor offenses helps to build faith and buy-in for the justice system, so that when major punishments are needed, they are seen to be just and willingly enforced.

      1. Reviewer # 3

        I see your reasonable and fair arguments.

        But, there lies the problem, and it’s a big problem.

        When a ‘minor offence’ can lead to millions of taxpayers money can be stolen from the public purse using fraudulent data included faked grant applications, leading to pressure on the same researcher to fake the next set of data sing that grant money, or their colleagues, leading to clinical trials using dodgy compounds, when human lives are at stake – thats a big problem.

        Or even animal studies prior to the human clinical trials where there are serious ethical questions on the use of rodents in these studies. There are literally hundreds of millions of mice used every year in such trials.

        The small steps of fraud can lead very quickly to the big steps!

        Do not underestimate the power of a spliced blot, a re-used FACS trace – they are serious fraudulent activities and if we dilute those we should all give up now.

        If we block the small fraudulent activities and punish severely, we block the big ones, and save lives long term.

        Not just lives – but huge suffering too – of patients and experimental animal!

      2. > When a ‘minor offence’ can lead to millions of taxpayers money can be stolen from the public purse
        > using fraudulent data included faked grant applications, leading to pressure on the same researcher
        > to fake the next set of data sing that grant money, or their colleagues, leading to clinical trials using
        > dodgy compounds, when human lives are at stake – thats a big problem.

        I don’t think those are minor offenses.

        A minor offense is more like the thought example of the badly supervised grad student given by John Mashey above. The advisor SHOULD BE culpable for sloppy supervising that leads to inclusion of plagiarized text. If an underling misbehaves, and the supervisor had a way of knowing about it, then that indicates a laboratory culture that is likely to promote larger misbehaviors.

        Put it another way: if the community is tolerant of small offenses, it makes it easier for big ones to grow and get away unpunished.

  5. I think that once a person becomes a poster child for research misconduct, they should not do science any more. But such cases are very rare in the extreme, so the vast majority of offenders should be allowed to continue. Most people who are punished for research misconduct are unlikely to be involved in it again. They know how big the stick is and they also know it would be even bigger the second time around. Besides, they are aware that their future work would be thoroughly scrutinized.
    Now, because most research fraud is carried out by serial offenders (one is very unlikely to get caught the very first time they do it), it is important to ensure that a particular offender does not qualify for the poster-child status. For instance, if somebody is found guilty of falsifying a Western blot in a paper, it should be checked if his other published blots are legit.

    1. Chirality

      Do we really have the time to do it?

      If a science-fraud person makes up a blot, the he should be gone.

      And good riddance! For that blot maybe a central theme to a paper – and they knop it!

      I dont want to see a scale of 1-100 (1, you can do it again and again, just with more skill and at 100 you get fired)

      Either its fraud or its not.

      If it isnt, keep going, if it is – goodbye!

      We are talking about research that could save patients lives. Thats your family, your friends, your children…..

      I dont take such chances!

    2. Chirality, I think you’re painting with too broad a brush; many things you state as facts are not really facts.

      For example, misconduct is “very rare in the extreme” in the context of all published papers, insofar as we know. But it is not rare in the context of retracted papers and we do not know how many unretracted papers exist that are flawed by misconduct.

      We also do not know whether people punished for misconduct are likely to do it again. Logic would suggest that people would not risk misbehaving again, but I see little role for logic in scientific misconduct.

      Finally, we do not know that “most research fraud is carried out by serial offenders,” because we have no insight into unretracted but fraudulent papers.

  6. I did not say research misconduct was very rare in the extreme. I said this about poster children of research misconduct. To earn the title one really needs to pull off something spectacular.
    OK, most fraud is not carried out by serial offenders. But not by much.
    the quote “Serial fraudsters are modern too, according to the findings from PNAS, which found that 44% of the fraud-retractions are due to serial fraud.” It follows, however, that far less than 44% of fraudsters can be considered “serial”.

  7. For serially serial fraudsters, the answer is always “no, no, no” because they will simply resume doing “me, me, me”.

    A quote from a successful whistleblower may be instructive. The two key ingredients to be defined as successful: (1) vindicated; (2) still has a career.

    “Regarding misconductees (a.k.a. lying liars who lie): 
Unfortunately, the fact is liars can be found in every profession, even in science. “Career-liars” seem to share a lot in common in how well they lie, how they try to cover things up and defer the blame to others, how long they can go on lying before being found out, and how they’ll almost never admit they did anything wrong (so don’t hold your breath!).”

    If you are interested in seeing her perspective, please note that the points she was making in the comments (based on her own experience) are NOT directly referring to the subject of the blog. While the retracted work being discussed there was unfortunate to say the least, to my knowledge fraud had not been established so that this sorry story may simply be dripping with incompetence.

    Enjoy, if that is your thing:

  8. (1) ‘“Sometimes these are very talented researchers,” says James DuBois…’ Really? How can you tell? Because they are swell guys? Because they told you how talented they are? Or isn’t it the case that you bought into their scam, hook line and sinker? The fact is, if a person commits fraud they are most definitely NOT talented at performing real, honest and reliable research.

    (2) Alright, for the sake of argument, assume that it is even possible that someone who commits research fraud can be “rehabilitated”. (Not likely, but…) This “rehabilitation” has absolutely NO BEARING on whether the CREDIBILITY of the researcher is rehabilitated in the eyes of his peers and colleagues. On this point alone, the effort to rehabilitate fraudsters fails miserably. What, am I supposed to TRUST that a researcher is honest now that he got busted and had to sit thru a week or two of classroom time? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!

    (3) The NIH funds fraud rehab efforts!?!? So the NIH is interested in maintaining and advancing the careers or PROVEN FRAUDS? This seems to me like an effort by the NIH to cover the asses of the frauds in the upper levels of its own administration. (My speculation…) A way out, a safety net… just in case they get caught. AMAZING… If the NIH were REALLY interested in eliminating research fraud, they would adopt severe penalties with little recourse. Want to avoid being accused of fraud? Be honest and keep good lab records! IT’S REALLY NOT THAT DIFFICULT TO AVOID COMMITTING RESEARCH FRAUD, BUT HONESTY DOESN’T PRODUCE NEARLY AS SEXY OR AS EXCITING A STORY AS WHAT THE IMAGINATION CAN GENERATE AND THE EGO CAN DEFEND. And the NIH is interested in STORIES (yes STORIES) that can SELL SELL SELL!!!

    But I don’t think the NIH is interested in punishing fraud at all. Rather, I feel they promote fraud by their practices and funding criteria. If you make funding prerequisites impossibly high and ask for impossible work under impossible conditions, then you’re going to get impossible proposals. Since these proposals fit so well with what NIH asks for, of course they’ll be funded! It’s EXACTLY what the NIH is looking for… except that, you know, that the fraud is detectable at all.

  9. I’d have to agree with Kruglyak. There are too many deserving candidates for positions and funding to continue to give opportunities to those who have proven that they are willing to resort to unethical measures to acquire such.

    1. But, but, but…….

      I can hear the heads of department/professor-science-fraudsters squeaming that they really do deserve more gold.

      We must bear in mind these types of people always get their way, and they would bully, harrass or fire anyone suggesting they have done science-fraud (if they could)

      And their respective insitutions would condone it.

      That is the present reality.

      Its a house of cards, when we take enough of them down, the whole house will fall down quickly, but I do think it will be a long, hard struggle to get rid of the cretins we have very politely called ‘science-frauds’.

      We need another science fraud reporting site.

      Society needs it.

      1. Sadly, I think you’re right. If you’re big enough, you can do virtually anything and still have people kow-tow and make excuses for you. It’s sad that some so-called titans are held to a lower standard than virtually unknown researchers.

  10. Some of you please review the definition of research misconduct. It is not error. The people who are doing it know that it is wrong. Either their ethical compass is broken or they are not able to withstand the pressures to commit fraud. I can’t get to the “rehab article” from the link provided but how do you “equip them with skills” to stop engaging in misconduct? It’s not like teaching them calculus or PCR techniques.

    1. I am in favour of rehabilitation – of those injured in war or accidents.

      But lets keep our heads on and think very carefully about this obvious loophole for science-fraudsters to worm their way back in the system they abused.

    2. Stewart, my post was probably not clear but you and I are in agreement. I strongly doubt the people who commit misconduct can be rehabilitated.

      1. Yes Lynnepi, I agreed with your post, which was clear to me!

        There is a shortage of funding for those that do honest science, so we certainly dont have funds to waste on frauds.

  11. This is truly outrageous. The NIH and the scientific community are always begging for more funding, As a taxpayer, I object to this misuse of funds. I don’t believe there is any room for misconduct when it comes to scientific research. Have we become a society that is suppose to tolerate such behavior and continue to leave the door open for abuse? It speaks volumes about someone’s moral character who would cheat or lie in the first place. Let them pay for their own rehab and then convince anyone willing to hire them that they have been rehabilitated.

  12. Perhaps something similar as the system used for doping could be used, with a two year automatic exclusion from any grants for a first case of misconduct, and automatic lifetime ban for a second, with the option for a direct lifetime ban for the bad cases. If ‘rehab’ is really needed, it should come from the grants of the responsible PI.

    1. Well, this responsible PI is going to be doing only one thing if I catch fraud in my group and that is calling my HR department as I compile the evidence of fraud into a termination letter. There is no way I am using my grant dollars, which already barely support the science I have proposed, to pay for remedial ethics classes for a kid who hasn’t learned right from wrong from his/her parents, the biomedical ethics classes they sit through in grad school, and my own instructions to show me all the primary data without redaction or enhancement.

      1. I completely agree with you. But what if the PI is the one caught? Should the rehab get paid for using NIH or NSF (taxpayer) dollars? I would vote no.

  13. As Leonid Kruglyac goes, so should we all, I say. Seriously, though, unless we’re talking about a beginning grad student who fails to show his/her PI a negative result out of fear of some sort of tongue-lashing, I can’t believe we are even entertaining the notion of rehabilitating a documented fraudster. Science is a highly competitive pursuit and always will be. If one has demonstrated that he/she has the will to commit fraud once, then I will never be convinced the potential isn’t there later, when the stakes are once again high.

    Doing science isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. Go seek another job in which you are not potentially taking resources away from someone who doesn’t need a taxpayer-subsidized ethics lesson to understand right from wrong. Certainly, if I have anything to say about it (e.g. if I am conducting the review of a fraudster’s grant application or manuscript), you aren’t going to get back into the game, no matter what rehab program certifies you are “cured.”

    1. Absolutely – and if you abuse privilege you lose it. A very deep privilege and honour, whereby the people pay you not to work, but to engage in your passion. We should also not forget that Fraud can kill and that this is documented.

  14. Why bother with rehabilitation? We’ve got plenty of qualified candidates competing for a limited number of academic jobs, it doesn’t make sense to me why one would expend any effort to retain the tainted.

  15. I think the option of kicking researchers out for good is a little irresponsible in all honesty. Sure, they did wrong and deserve to be punished – but I mean irresponsible in that it’s an option which allows the scientific community to refuse to take a look at the person in the mirror. We have a scientific system which encourages research fraud, it’s that plain and simple. Responsibility would be owning up to that fact and taking a look at why the scientific community places such pressure on producing ‘positive’ results, getting papers in high impact journals and getting them done as fast as possible, and landing big research grants. In the current system research fraud is, quite frankly, inevitable.

    As with the comments above, there will be different shades of grey and some people will deserve more lenience than others, so I’m sure for some a chance at rehabilitation would be well placed.

    1. Booker, if one cannot do science honestly, one cannot do science, period!

      I think some professors, who commit science fraud, should pay back the money they embezzled.

      Then be prosecuted for misuse of federal funds.

      Isn’t it embezzlement to put fake data in Fegeral grant applications, which are then awarded?

      Surely, the criminal justice department has been alerted to the cases here?

      It should be.

      1. I don’t disagree Stewart. I’m just saying that throwing out the bad apples isn’t going to alleviate the pressure to commit fraud, or the ease at which it can be done. We can throw out the bad apples but there will just be more to come, until we do something about removing the pressure to ‘enhance’ results and get high impact publications, or put in place systems to allow (or even better, require) posting of raw data along with publication to make science more transparent.

        The current system of punishment seems to me just like having a society with widespread access to alcohol and then punishing alcoholics for it being ‘their fault’. I guess it’s just like the tag line to this blog “Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process” – the current scientific process as I see it is neck-deep with flaws, it’s high time we started doing something about it.

    2. While I agree that reducing the pressure placed on scientists might prevent many cases of fraud, I’m somewhat skeptical on how to do it. Scientists in any field are competing for scarce resources. So you can only increase the resources (probably without end, as the more money is in the system, the more attractive it becomes being a scientist) or cap the number of scientists, which will just move the fraud to the entry point of the scientific career.

  16. >In the current system research fraud is, quite frankly, inevitable.

    Am I the only one who disagrees with this statement?

    1. I don’t think it’s inevitable. What has happened to ethics, morality, honesty, that we need to think it’s inevitable? Sorry, Booker but I don’t believe in mediocrity or justifying misconduct and blaming it on the system. Work to change the system, but to claim the system is to blame doesn’t say much for all the honest researchers out there.

      1. I don’t believe in justifying misconduct either. Maybe I should clarify what I was meaning – I think if the scientific community just blames the individuals (note, they do deserve blame, I’m not trying to absolve them) then the community as a whole is effectively washing their hands of the problem and not giving due reflection to aspects of the system of scientific investigation which allow this to occur.

        I think the existence of this very blog, dedicated to covering scientific misconduct, is evidence in itself that scientific fraud is inevitable as things stand. I imagine this blog will still be going in a year’s time… five years time.. ten years? (who knows maybe Ivan and Adam will get bored…)… if so, that’s evidence enough for me of inevitability.

        Maybe I’ve just been reading this blog too much or am just too cynical – but I’m kind of getting tired of the same ‘shock horror’ response to fraud cases, when it’s obvious the process of scientific investigation needs to be altered and is in part to blame. Will people still commit fraud? Of course, humans are strange creatures and commit fraud in all walks of life. The key is to put systems in place to make this more difficult.

        I think an appropriate analogy is workplace safety. Back in the day the workers themselves would be blamed for being clumsy or careless, but now it’s taken for granted that organizations and workplaces can put in place measures to make safe behavior the norm, as well as safeguards to ensure a moment’s inattention doesn’t result in catastrophe. In the science world, however, we’re still stuck at first base reacting in horror when someone lies (oh my, humans lie!?)

  17. As noted in a number of comments, punishment should fit the crime. However, we should also remember that the fraud we are talking about has gone through a number of “filters” prior to publication. The PI must be aware of the raw data and of the rules of the game. So if the PI “pushes” a student or postdoc to manipulate (or cherry pick, etc., etc.) data prior to publication, the PI is not just contravening established practice for reporting results, but also for training. There is consequently a question of corruption of the integrity of others by bullying, since the young are in a weak position and may not be able to stand up to the PI. On those occasions when they do, they don’t get a PhD in that lab or they lose their postdoc, have a publication gap in their CV and a problem with getting a reference. Careerwise they will lose several years and they are likely to be lost to science. That is one of the major tragic outcomes of fraudulent science (the other being the death of people).
    The “rehab” funds would be much better spent on an initiative to support the young where were both brave and foolhardy to challenge a fraudulent PhD supervisor or postdoctoral mentor. Young scientists who challenge their PI with data are the dream of all real scientists and clearly have the right ingredients to make important contributions to science in the future.
    We should also remember, in terms of what punishment fits the crime, that a fraudulent lab will produce a mix of young scientists with a tendency to do fraud and/or who leave science. This is where we lose talent, since the young were recruited in the first place because they have talent. The fraudsters may be very smart, but they are flawed in some way and so are unlikely to be able to continue in science.
    Again noted by others, we might take a leaf out of how sports deal with cheating. First a ban for a couple of years, then a lifetime ban and the loss of medals and in some cases a demand for a return of prize money.

    1. I take your point Ferniglab.

      Rather than push funds to rehabilitate the alleged criminals in question, perhaps we could direct the funds to where it would serve society best.

      I’d suggest pushing the funding towards Paul Brookes and his forthcoming endeavours, to once again, fight the science-fraudsters.

      Keep up the good fight!

    2. well said, ferniglab. we should support the brave whistleblowers (once their suspicions are proved) and protect them from being isolated. In many cases, along with the PIs who were found to be involved in scientific misconduct the whistleblowers are also affected. Collateral damage is another issue. There is no protection for such people. How about getting “INSURED” before joining for Ph.D. or before writing to the Research Integrity office about a scientific misconduct in the lab, department or university? Insurance companies can come up with policies…this may be a dumb idea and you must be murmouring “you are right!!”.

      1. “before writing to the Research Integrity office about a scientific misconduct in the lab, department or university?”

        That is a dumb idea, insurance companies are in the business of making a profit. That would be like ringing up the insurance company and trying to get fire insurance when you see the bush fire front just down the road.

      2. The brave whistleblowers need protection and support immediately, not just after their suspicions are proved. Under the current system, the whistleblower is called in by the department head for a tongue-lashing, is ostracized and whispered about, and is branded a troublemaker. Not only does the whistleblower not get a favorable recommendation for jobs elsewhere, but there is an active attempt to blackball the person. Rules that have not been applied for years are resurrected and enforced to harass the whistleblower, although other people in the group who are concurrently in situations covered by these same rules are mysteriously exempt from compliance. “Hostile workplace” is the term, but good luck trying to get anyone to acknowledge what is happening. It takes a village to expose a fraudster. Currently most scientific villages are inclined to scapegoat the whistleblower and cover up for the fraudster.

        1. You seem to assume that all whistle-blowing is honest and insightful. Some whistle-blowing is misguided and some of it might even be fraudulent, with the goal of hurting a successful program. If we make whistle-blowing too easy, the whole system could get paralyzed with baseless allegations.

      3. R. Grant Steen, sure some whistleblowing might be fraudulent in the future. However, there are plenty of whistleblowers now who were proven to be right and had their careers destroyed. The money can be used to contact them and offer them a full salary as a postdoc for a couple of years. At 70K a year in salary, I think 4-5 whistleblowers whose careers have been destroyed can be urged to try to give science another go.

  18. Seriously is it even worth considering? In which other profession a person found guilty of misconduct is ever rehabilitated? The difference that is oft cited is the “scientists involved in misconduct do not make personal profit/ benefit” “the fund doesn’t go to their personal account” in contrast to other fields but then so do people who indulge in malpractices for the benefit of their company but they not only lose the job but also face the judicial process. Scientists in comparison mostly get off with paid leave from doing research or in the worst possible scenario lose job. When we should be talking about stronger action against such individuals, we have people such as James DuBois championing for rehab … and why not after all he is running the program. Good for his business but once they learn why they were caught, I suspect that they will only apply it to not get caught the same way. I don’t think a dishonest person can be made honest through a series of lectures!!

    As for their being ‘talented’ .. if they had any real talent then either they would not feel the need to indulge in misconduct or they would not be caught doing such sloppy manipulations. What has mostly been caught and / or exposed on blogs etc is image manipulations. These in my opinion are the handiwork of either careless or really stupid individuals. RW and some people have tried to implicate the techniques as being inherently flawed and more susceptible to manipulations whereas in reality its just easier to spot identical looking bands/ cells etc. These are just the tip of the iceberg and the real smart people who indulge in fraudulent practices will be very difficult to catch if not impossible. There you will not find any images or graphs with errors … perfect pieces of data but is it reproducible? How many times have we read papers with conflicting data but the authors going in a round about way trying to explain why their findings are different from what other have reported even though using the same or similar system? Another lab not being able to reproduce a piece of data will be blamed on numerous things including the system, the hands or even the alignment of sun, moon and earth!!

    These can be caught only when a lab member decides to speak out and needless to say would be immediately known who did it unless its a huge lab but then too there would be some that would be suspect. In my first post doc lab when I got some data that was not in accordance with what had been published by another PI, my PI told me to ‘.. walk on egg shells … you know how they do their research’ when presenting that data in the joint lab meeting with that other PI (my PI and that other PI had been post doc together in the same lab and were good friends). Not that my PI was above board either … he would act righteous, insist on repeats, look at raw data but did fudge a bit here and there, manipulate parts of data that were presented. I questioned and had to leave or I should just say I left as I didn’t want to stay either.

    Its this culture of looking out for your colleagues/ friends, covering up for them that has brought the scientific community to this point where friendly reviews ensure publication/ grant money. If you rat on some one then you would be an out cast from the community cause most of them have their own dirty little secrets or owe favors towards papers/ grants!! And so we can just try to break the tip of the iceberg while it remains unperturbed … wrecking the ships.

    1. I know of quite a few professions where people who have committed misconduct are still allowed back. The judicial system comes to mind (plenty lawyers, DA’s and judges come back despite having been sanctioned for misconduct), or the medical profession (even if it requires you to reapply for a permit). Plenty of pilots get reinstated despite having been caught drinking before their job. Professional chauffeurs: same story. In essence you are arguing that anyone ever caught for DUI should never ever be allowed to drive any vehicle ever again.

      1. @Marco,

        In none of those cases would a miscreant be permitted back into the highest echelons of a profession. Owing to the nature of our funding process, grant recipients are by definition supposedly at the pinnacle. Cheaters should meet the chasm. The world always needs quality bench technicians.

        1. That really depends on the nature of the “crime” committed. I know of lawyers with “reprimands” becoming judges, and pilots still moving up after a “DUI” conviction (and having been suspended). Here in Denmark our Master and PhD students can get grants. Not quite at the “pinnacle” just yet.

      2. No, we’re not arguing that if you have a DUI you should never be allowed to drive any vehicle ever again, we’re arguing that fraudsters shouldn’t do science again. No ‘in essence’ ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Bad analogy trying to derail the argument.

        1. We were discussing “misconduct”, not “fraud”. If you argue that no one who ever is caught for any form of scientific misconduct can be rehabilitated, you argue that anyone with a DUI should forever be banned driving a vehicle. I reject that reasoning. That doesn’t mean we should use lots of money on said rehabilitation, that everyone can be rehabilitated, etc. etc.

  19. Three days of classes to rehab offenders ? Acts of misconduct are the result of the individuals’ psychological traits and the circumstances in which they found themselves. What classroom exercise could possibly deal with such complex issues?

    However, there is one common factor that affects the behavior of both trainees and faculty and provides an opportunity for remediation, the emotion of fear, i.e., an excessive fear of failure in the trainees and an inadequate fear of detection in the faculty. What I believe would be helpful are interventions which can reduce the trainees’ fear, such as more adequate mentoring; and increase the fear of detection in faculty with more effective protection of whistleblowers. Why is it that with Federal laws protecting whistleblowers, they continue to be victimized ?

    Classroom instruction in research misconduct for trainees has been found to be ineffective, There is no reason to believe it would be any more effective in offenders.

    Don Kornfeld

  20. While I don’t have a problem with the idea in principle, I just would have thought that you could always find a more suitable candidate to fill a position. There is also the risk that they may be trading on their reputation of earlier papers with undetected fraud. So that honest scientists are being put at a disadvantage. I do think some consideration should be given to helping them to subsequent careers though. The being forced to work in Walmart type jobs ought to be reserved for whistle-blowers.

    I understand there is discussion under way for a replacement to science-fraud? Could I suggest investigating different content management systems other than a straight blog? There are varieties of wiki – like Tikiwiki or Mediawiki that might be worth thinking about. Mediawiki is very much the wikipedia look, whereas tikiwiki is more flexible having features like blogs, articles, wikis, forums etc. It allows different levels of members, so you could have contributors and administrators with different privileges. You can also set up member only access areas where you can have discussions rather than rely on emails. It would make a more formal community environment rather than adhoc posting in comments.

    Another suggestion, that would need to be kept separate from analysis of papers, I was wondering about a clearinghouse for people who try and replicate parts of a paper for whatever reason but it fails to replicate. The data and the original paper could be uploaded – in a non-accusatory way. I know this happened a few times to me, generally it isn’t worth a paper and it may be very unpolitic to do so. It was certainly very frustrating and I would have welcomed somewhere to blow off some steam at the time. It could be open to abuse however, or perhaps no one would submit stuff. A place to submit dud antibodies or other products might save people time and money also.

    1. A place to submit dud antibodies? That is an excellent idea. In fact it exists, it is called Antibodypedia.

      Equally important, you can report on good antibodies too. Or generally good antibodies with a bit of cross-reaction. And so on.

      Everybody who uses antibody reagents should use and contribute to Antibodypedia as a matter of course.

      1. In practice the site seems more geared to industry needs than end-user focused.

        Of course any site or engine only works if people contribute to it. I know for the proteins I have worked with where industry has produced lots of antibody lemons no one has put anything up there.

        Perhaps a site which concentrated on highlighting the lemons might have a stronger impact on industry to lift its game?

      2. I agree we need such a thing – problem is there are alot of useless researchers who probably mix up antibodies, used the wrong dilution calculations etc – so perfectly good reagents are written up as useless.

        Using companies like Invitrogen or RnD….their antibodies are usually very very good.

        What labs need are skilled researchers who can perform experiments with the appropriate (clearly described) control.

        If there is no control there is no experiment. (ripped from Blotette:) )

      3. With my experience of the problem it seems that many companies are just trying to cover the entire proteome with monoclonals.
        So with one protein I worked on there was at best half a dozen labs working on that protein. There were half a dozen companies offering western blotting antibodies for it. None of them worked.
        I know because I ended up making a stably transfected cell line of my protein just to be sure none of them worked.
        Yet all the companies all had western blots with beautiful bands on them – and they even had anonymous reviewers leaving comments (that couldn’t be matched to any of the half dozen labs working on that protein), saying how wonderful the antibody was for western blotting.
        In other words if you’ve got a well characterised protein with a lot of people working on it, you won’t have any difficulty. Otherwise it is very much a pig in a poke – with biotech companies just churning out products with automated development methods and not taking even the 5 minutes needed to check if they actually work.

      4. Aha, yes, the lovely western blot they use as bait for buyers.

        Agree with littlegreyrabbit – the mab world can be frustrating, time consuming and expensive.

        Talk to a really experienced researcher and get all controls in place -pos and neg. And use an isotype!

        Usually they have, in very small writing, the blot is from a recombinant – and they dont even use BSA as a control, as if they did, the band would be in that lane too!

        Sounds like u had a dud LGR, we’ve all been there – my sincere sympathy 🙂

      5. No, I don’t believe they used a recombinant for their western blot, since it wouldn’t fold in E.coli and I made an excellently folding and expressing human cell line recombinant and it still didn’t work.

        I think they just fabricated it – or rather all three companies whose antibodies we tried.

        As I say, I assume this must be a result of automated development systems since there would be no other viable business model – and they aren’t actually verifying their product before selling them.

      6. Thanks for all the comments. I hope we are not going too much off topic here since we are discussing how to do experiments better rather than how to rehabilitate persons who make up imaginary results.

        I had the opportunity to be present when the setting up of Antibodypedia was being discussed. (Meetings of EU grant partners.)

        It was clear that to get broad coverage, the producers must be on board. The better producers would know that they could expect criticism but they might expect to come out OK if most of their antibodies do the job.

        Now to make it a living, useful resource, it requires people like Stewart to upload images of their results and report their experiences. Obviously you won’t be able to present results that compromise unpublished results, so sometimes you may have to wait, but often you will have results from testing out the antibodies that don’t need to be kept secret.

        Even good experimentalists can make mistakes of course, but if several labs test out an antibody and some get it to work, then that suggests the antibody is ok. There might also be clues to things like shelf-life, not just “researcher quality” when the results are in conflict. And of course some antibodies work for some conditions but not others, e.g. westerns but not staining cells and vice versa.

        In contrast to what seems prevalent on this blog, nobody needs to upload their reports to antibodypedia under a false name. Well, perhaps certain PIs would not approve one of their students reporting something and that would be a reason to go anonymous. But anyone who uploads anonymously will lower the value of their report.

        So get reporting your antibody results. I would join you but I’ve never done a western blot in my life.

    2. I’m not sure I know what you mean in your second paragraph. Could you please explain what you mean by content management systems? Is this similar to post-publication review? Or sort of open-source science?

  21. The thing that amazes me with the misconduct is how obvious it really is. These are easily detected reckless misconducts with compelling evidence of wrong doing, often in the publication/record itself. I can spot a spliced western blot in seconds, and even other data can be statistically analyzed/compared for odd data variances.

    Intent is difficult to ascribe but it is difficult to be convinced that trained Professors who publish fabricated data can rely on a defense that they were stupid/lazy and did not notice the problem when they submitted the paper and seek to shift blame to the lesser trained students/trainees (not always I know).
    Who are often cannon fodder for protecting institutes and faculty.

    I think this needs professional law enforcement, prosecution/defense and judicial oversight. Other professions have similar facilities. This provides a high level of protection all around and teeth. We need to deter misconduct and provide rehab, just like with any law breaker.

  22. I am tempted to start a White House petition to criminalize scientific fraud with appropriate statutes and funding. Would you vote yes or no? Also, what wording would you suggest for the petition?

    1. Thats a super idea JohnCrowley

      I would point you in the direction of the new Paul Brookes website when it comes online as I am sure he and his new colleagues will be eager to be involved in the petition you suggest.

      Presumably researchers in other countries will be thinking the same.

      We get a little lost in all the talk here – but the fact that millions of future lives will be at stake if we get this wrong – brings it home how serious this issue is.

    2. I would be in favor of this. Misconduct is also a waste of taxpayer’s money which is another consideration. Paul J. Muchowski has issued a formal apology for instance, but no repayment of any funds was required. That isn’t right.

  23. From the comments on this thread I can only deduce that the majority of people here must be from the US – the country which has the highest proportion of its population incarcerated in prisons and jails… The idea of rehabilitation people who have offended seems to be a concept that is non-existent in the frequenters of this blog. A shame, really. I wouldn’t expect to see so many old-testament folks in a group of people who should in my mind should stand for more progressive ideas.

  24. Too many good people are losing their labs right now. I do not have a problem with universities attempting to “rehab” a scientist with their own funding, but to put EU, NIH, ect funding towards the problem is a waste of funding that could help a young scientist start their career.

    One thing to keep in mind is that truly gifted scientists do not grow on trees. We do not want to outcast these gifted people that have gone astray because they may have much to still discover…stuff that 100 scientists could not accomplish in a lifetime. It is a very fine line and a very unfair line to dance, but why cut off our nose?

    To Sebastian, academia is a tough place to make a living. Not wanting to rehab fraudsters because good people are losing their jobs left and right is a perfectly progressive opinion. Why should good people suffer just so fraudsters can find their way back into academia…let them go to a private company. It isn’t like these people are being tossed in jail.

  25. A Devil’s advocate might re-phrase the question. Having invested huge sums of money training and sponsoring said Fraudster, is there any way for society to recoup some value? Should the baby always go out with the bathwater?

    As for enforcement/retribution, I’m all for a lifetime ban on funding and some form of financial/criminal penalty. I suggest that the administrative cost of prosecution/rehabilitation should be entirely borne by the indvidual scientist/liar in concert with the institution where the fraud occurred. Universities should has a strong disincentive as well. Perhaps every grant should include a user fee to go into an independent compliance organization, maybe one structured like an IRB (i.e., including members of the lay public)?

    Secondly, I think the preponderance of science fraud is directly related to the public funding mechanism. When only the well-connected or carefully deceptive get funding, there is incentive to take care of your friends/trainees, and to cheat. Something must change. What if funding agencies assigned 15% of all funding to randomly selected grant proposals falling in the top third of priority scores?

  26. There is no need for a new law to prosecute individuals for misconduct. Under current law US law, submitting false data in an application for Federal funds is considered fraud and is punishable with imprisonment and/or a fine. ORI can forward cases to the Justice Department for prosecution.
    In the last ten years only two or three individuals have been prosecuted. i believe the more vigorous application of the law would have a deterrent effect.


      1. The ORI has a certain remit, described here, and if that includes pursuing *legal* fraud, i.e., grant fraud, that is not obvious. Maybe RW would consider a post on the various roles:
        1) ORI is supposed to work on research intergrity, as its name implies. AS far as I can tell, it has zero remit to pursue legal fraud cases, but of curse, can forward information to DHHS IG.

        2) Inspector General
        a) in this case the relevant one is:
        OIG for HHS
        other useful ones are:

        b) NSF OIG
        They produce reports like this, 2012.

        c) DoD OIG

        If they take up a case, they need to get DoJ involved to actually do subpoenas, for example.

        Of course, given (always)-limited resources, IGs (like the IRS) tends to focus on larger $$ amounts that might be recovered, hence things like $1B recovery from a bank tend to rank a little higher.
        Getting attention might be helped by enlisting Congressional friends.

        I sympathize with OIGs have limited staff size, and they may well think that the much-larger efforts required for prosecution are better spent on chasing many other cases, and that the career-ending results of many are enough. DHHS has some *big* fraud cases to chase. Still, I think a few prosecutions every year for research grant fraud might have useful effects, Maybe DHHS OIG should take ORI’s list each year and pursue the most egregious case.

        If IGs don’t take up a complaint, there’s always qui tam via the False Claims Act, although that can be expensive and time-consuming. If somebody is really serious, set up a 501(c)(3) and get donations enough to hire some lawyers.

        3) Grant fraud
        Here are a few useful sources I just happen to have handy:

        a) NSF CAREER Program Development, at George Mason University, March 2009
        See pp.65,66,68,69,71,73,74,77,80,81.

        b) US Government, an 8-page presentation.

        c) Grant Fraud & qui tam from law firm

        d) 31 USC 3729, False claims. and 18 USC 1001 False statements.

  27. Does anyone really know how deep the rabbit hole goes?
    I would guess 99% of casual fraudsters never get caught for removing 1-2 points when working on a minor subtopic. Those who escalate into serials by making up data in tens of high impact papers ruin their own careers, there is no excuse. They bumped up their own hitbox, not one, but 20 flawed papers to confront them, there’s no wrong in taking out the easy target.
    BUT I think there should be redemption for those who have been framed by fraudsters (phd or prof, one makes it up, other falls with him).
    Actually life sciences, like biology, medicine, etc and statistical sciences (psychology) have quite high hit rates, as you can get a paper published for the same experiment on a different sample set.
    In other fields, like physics, there is no reason in ever checking others previous experiments if it’s not a mainstream topic, since you can only publish it in a p2p (pay to print) journal.
    I think that instead of rehabilitating freudsters, the publishing polices should be worked give a bit more credit for negative results and revising others.

    1. I would disagree that in physical sciences nothing is ever repeated – it is and often on the same “system”, something which is difficult in biology. Regarding selection of points, we train young scientists to keep those points unless they can is argue convincingly (which should be done openly in Methods) that the points should be removed, e.g., inside instrument noise.
      However, I suspect you are right and that we have a fair amount of such data selection: I recall a poll of NIH grant holders put this at around a third, according to the article on the Forbes website on the shutdown of the Science Fraud site. It isn’t good to teach one thing and do another.

  28. I would just like to remark that my colleagues in Brazil are loving this discussion. No fraudulent scientists are really punished here, and now many claim that we should follow this “new tendency” of rehab, and now we ought to rehabilitate any researcher found guilty with misconduct. This is becoming secured and official impunity.

    I cannot say thank you, however I am happy that somewhere else in the world scientists are really seriously busted for fraud so that at least some honest workers will keep the field going in the right direction.

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