Wash U psychologist sheds light on inquiry against former psychology grad student

Adam Savine
Adam Savine

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

16 thoughts on “Wash U psychologist sheds light on inquiry against former psychology grad student”

  1. In my opinion, something does not square in the timeline: some of the incriminated papers came out in 2012 (one in Dec 2012!). If the PI had already “doubts about the integrity of Savine’s data” then it is not clear why he did not check those paper more carefully before or just after they were accepted.

    1. The most recent paper appears in the December 2012 issue of CABN, but it was published online much earlier: August 9, 2012 (as indicated on the first page of the published paper). It is possible that the paper was already in press by the time the misconduct was suspected.

    1. isn’t that “one rips what one sews”? or was it “one reaps what one sows”? always get it mixed up…

      [sorry, couldn’t resist…]

    2. Based on the discussion above, Braver did what was needed.

      In every mentor relationship, there is a measure of trust. You trust that the student is not making up data. In point of fact, it is possible to make up data and have it very difficult to detect as well.

      Braver, who I know, is an ethical person. I know many of the persons at WU in Psych. It is a high-quality department, with many extremely talented and capable persons.

      1. Anonymous comments on these kinds of issues have very little weight, unfortunately. Even if they were not anonymous, of course we tend to think our buddies are great. Finally, being talented and capable is not incompatible with making up data. Again, look at Mark Hauser. Nobody who knew him would really say the guy was not talented or capable. And Harvard, Psych is obviously a high-quality department. The bottom line is that, once the windshield is cracked, it stays cracked; you cannot uncrack it.

      2. Evidence to the contrary I have no reason to suspect Braver of being anything but an honest, ethical researcher who has been caught up in this mess through no fault of his own.

        However having said that, researchers must at least acknowledge the fact that nowadays not all students and/or colleagues may be as honest and ethical as one would wish and that if you are going to lend your name and reputation to a particular student and /or colleague you damn well better make sure that everything is on the up and up befofre doing so. If you don’t it may just come back and bite you on the hind end.

        President Reagan said it best we he stated, “Trust but verify”.

    3. Part of training grad students is bringing them to the point where they are playing leadership roles in their own projects. After they graduate, they will often be setting their own research agenda. So it’s totally appropriate for an almost-graduated student to be operating with a lot of independence. It may well be that in this case the supervisor should have caught it earlier, but so far we have seen no evidence of this. It is very easy in these situations to not confront difficult issues, and not to raise accusations against colleagues/students, so our default reaction in this case (i.e. unless there is evidence to the contrary) should be to praise the intellectual honesty of the supervisor, rather than to ascribe bad motives to him.

      Note: I don’t know any of these people, and I work in a different field.

  2. “However, we know from reporting on these issues that the ORI has strict rules about who has a right to information during an investigation, ”

    Yes, for sure. Whether a complainant is involved or not, ORI never tells them anything … and if people think about it, they might understand why that’s usually a good thing. I have sometimes sent them more data following an initial complaint, but I’d *never* expect any status information back.

    Univiersities vary greatly in their responses to complainants, from having rules that require complainants be told of Inquiry Committee membership (and thus fact that inquiry is occurring) to nothing.

  3. Your first link to “Q and A with Todd Braver” is broken (the one at the bottom of the post does work).

  4. I’d be interested to hear what led Braver to “begin to have some suspicions about Adam’s ethical integrity” – maybe he has some tips for others to help them spot dodgy colleagues?

    1. This may just be me over-analyzing statements, and I claim to be no expert in statement analysis (apparently it is a legitimate form of analysis used by people in the FBI), but you can deduce a lot from how a particular statement is phrased. For instance, Braver states that..”[he] was beginning to have some suspicions about Adam’s ethical integrity..” I’d expect to hear the phrase “…after X and Y happened” after the above phrase, but Braver skips it and leads instead into what he did next.

      We don’t know how long he entertained these suspicions, but it’s interesting that he didn’t state what propelled him to deduce that there were problems with Adam’s ethical integrity. That type of suspicion sounds to me like it would take some time to build. Regardless of how long he might have suspected this is unimportant, but it struck me nonetheless.

      Above all, I also find it rather funny that the journalist asking Braver about this did not follow up on that statement. It seems to me that any journalist would then ask, “What events lead you to doubt his [Adam’s] ethical integrity?”

    1. I think this is just sad. I can’t help but answering your comment with the term “interesting” in it.

      **This is sad, not interesting.**

      One scientist cooks the data: Burn him!!!. It is important to clean the literature yet not so to go like the Spanish Inquisition. Please…

      i. e. What happens when a extensively used function in fieldtrip or eeglab appears to be wrong? no-thing.

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