What happens to postdocs sanctioned by the ORI?

AJOB primaryIn a finding that’s unlikely to surprise too many people, but which is interesting work nonetheless, researchers have found that trainees whom the U.S. Office of Research Integrity finds to have committed misconduct rarely publish much again. According to the paper, only 11% of trainees who committed misconduct published more than one article a year.

That’s not quite the case for more seasoned scientists who show up in ORI reports, as the researchers — Barbara Redman and Jon Merz — had discovered in previous work. Here’s the abstract of the new paper, “Effects of Findings of Scientific Misconduct on Postdoctoral Trainees,” which appeared in August in the American Journal of Bioethics — Primary Research (not the AJOB, as we’d first reported):

Background: In an earlier study, we described the impact of formal misconduct determinations on established scientists’ careers, showing that many retained scientific careers, and more than half (51%) continued to publish at least one paper per year after their cases were decided. Here, we extend our study to examine the ramifications of final misconduct findings by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) on the careers of postdoctoral fellows. Methods: We tracked publication histories and attempted to track down all postdoctoral trainees found by ORI to have committed misconduct, and attempted to interview them about their experiences. Results: Trainees found to have committed misconduct between 1993 and 2007 whom we could trace were less likely to continue to publish than more established scientists, with only 11% publishing more than one paper per year after their misconduct determinations. Our assessment is constrained by our inability to reliably trace postdoctoral fellows, reflecting the fact that a majority of U.S. postdocs are from other countries. Conclusions: Because of concern about the fairness of severe punishment of trainees, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity appears to be shifting from funding debarments toward requiring education, mentorship, and oversight for trainees, which may enhance the likelihood of rehabilitation. Whether this policy succeeds remains to be seen.

Merz, of the University of Pennsylvania, told us that the findings confirmed his sense that

trainees get thrown under the bus. They have less of a history, and arguably less of a track record as well as less developed scientific skills to survive. We saw a similar thing with ORI ‘convictions’ of clinical trial staff — the staffers who were unlikely to be adequately trained in RCR [responsible conduct of research], perhaps were overburdened with work and given firm but perhaps stretched performance targets (e.g., on enrollment), when they cheated to get things done, they took the fall, but the PI who created the mess walked away (as long as s/he didn’t tolerate the misbehavior when it was revealed) …

Merz and Redman couldn’t track the foreign scholars, so their fates generally are unknown:

Anecodotally, I know of cases of folks trained here who commit some act, then return home.  Even if their case is ‘prosecuted’ here, it may be that it doesn’t follow them home.  This of course may be changing, as many countries around the world are becoming more aware of the problems.

Donald Kornfeld, a professor emeritus at Columbia University who has also studied ORI cases, expressed skepticism that rehabilitation is a useful approach to dealing with scientific misconduct:

What is so baffling is that studies published by ORI funded investigators had reported long before I did, that trainees cheat because of what they refer to as “stress”.  That is correct. These trainees feared that  their careers would  be over if they did not produce publishable results and the flawed publications followed. Yet, ORI has chosen to ignore the obvious and the ORI data and continues to pursue the classroom prophylaxis and/or cure rather than shift the emphasis to the need for adequate mentoring to  address the problem.

Merz agrees:

My sense is that it [an emphasis on rehabilitation] will not work, because the faculty and institutions at which these trainees work will dismiss them long before ORI even gets to hear their cases. ORI, after all, is a secondary authority — the institutions act first, and ORI (the way I understand it) can only pile on federal penalties (debarments) that would follow these folks to other academic positions, if they were able to land one.

0 thoughts on “What happens to postdocs sanctioned by the ORI?”

  1. So basically the new/slow swimmer gets eaten by the shark and not much happens to those veteran paper writers. Interesting to note that Mertz said that “less developed scientific skills to survive” did so, I believe that he should have said those with the more developed POLITICAL skills to survive, did so.
    This was/is a very interesting paper but I think a more relevant paper would be one on what happens after retraction/misconduct to the financial/pay, books written or if they stayed at their respective institutions.

  2. I don’t have access to the full paper, but this seems like an odd way to measure the impact of research misconduct on one’s career. One paper/year is not much for an established lab, but for an individual postdoc would indicate very high productivity, particularly in certain fields. Also, the more meaningful comparison should be to a group of postdocs with similar productivity. I am sure there is very high attrition rate even for postdocs who do not committ misconduct.

    1. My thoughts exactly.
      When you are either a) still a postdoc or b) starting up your own group, your output will obviously be lower than that of an established lab. You don’t need to have a ORI history for that one! Also, the job market being what it is, I could see how having an ORI history would make you less likely to get a faculty position (given that there’s a whole herd of candidates with untarnished CVs out there) hence perpetuating situation a) and/or b) for much longer.

  3. The political forces that result in the corruption described by Retraction Watch are explained and predicted by scientists like Jeff Schmidt (Disciplined Minds) and Peter Duesberg (Inventing the AIDS Virus). Retraction Watch documents the fallen fruit while ignoring the poison trees that bear these fruit – a sort of confessional for the acquiescent masses.

  4. I completely understand the criticism lodged against P.I.’s who are too demanding and unsupportive. This poor management behavior is an issue that should adversely affect tenure and promotion for the P.I. We should also be wary of P.I.’s who implicitly encourage cheating among their subordinates.

    However, such inadequate mentorship doesn’t justify cheating on one’s research. As such, I don’t think we should absolve cheating post-doc’s with the “my P.I. was mean to me” excuse. Just as students who cheat on exams can’t simply blame their teachers for being too demanding, junior researchers who cheat should not be able to offload their guilt onto supervisors they deem to be unfair.

    Further, it will be hard to get P.I.’s to report an employee’s misconduct if the P.I. is to be the one who takes the bulk of the blame.

    1. Well put – your statement hearkens to the old adage of bridge jumping and peer pressure.
      We all end up in challenging situations…ultimately our strengths of character is what defines and advances us.

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