Pernille Rørth is not your typical novelist. She was a scientist for 25 years and was also editor-in-chief of the EMBO Journal for five years. But now, she’s written a novel – Raw Data – about an incident of misconduct that forces a top lab in Boston to retract a prominent Nature paper. The novel exposes how scientists – even the most well-intentioned – can crack under the intense pressure of such a career-killing event. (There’s even a twist at the end.) We spoke to Rørth about her novel, and what she wants it to achieve.
Retraction Watch: Misconduct is – thankfully – a relatively rare event in science. Why write a novel about it?
Pernille Rørth: I don’t see this as a novel about misconduct. It is about life in biomedical science. It is about dedication, careers, ambitions, but also the daily excitement and dreariness of doing science. I wanted to describe this life in a way that would let the reader get what makes scientists tick. I’ve used misconduct to give a dramatic center to the story. Everyone has heard about it and knows that it is important. Many scientists will have thought about this type of situation, some may have seen it happen nearby. It raises a lot of complex issues. I’ve chosen to use misconduct as a way to get the reader into the mindset of this group of people.
RW: The novel presents a few clues about what might have triggered the author to misconduct – a rush to get out a high-profile paper before being scooped, etc. What do you believe are the roots of misconduct, based on your experience?
PR: I don’t have direct experience of misconduct – thankfully – but I know of several labs where it has happened. In those cases, I think the triggers were quite similar to those I use in the book. Not the same, but similar. A stressed postdoc or student taking a short-cut, essentially, and expecting it will never be found out. The temptation is obvious. Through the grapevine and the press, I know of more extreme cases where someone abuses the system, systematically, to get ahead. But those are very rare cases, I think.
RW: Misconduct cases are rarely black and white, in which one person is guilty and everyone else is 100% innocent of any wrongdoing. This appears to be true in your story, as well: Even though it appears one scientist acted alone to fudge her data, no one in the book comes off squeaky clean, not even the whistleblower. The whistleblower is initially pleased to learn the data can’t be replicated, which is awfully mean-spirited; the principal investigator (PI) initially is angry at the whistleblower and hesitant to follow the university’s formal investigative procedure. Why did you choose to include the flaws of the innocent participants?
PR: This is a story about people, who happen to be scientists. Real people are seldom all good or all bad. I’ve tried to present realistic human beings. They are trying to be good — as scientists – but they are ambitious. They also want the best jobs, the recognition etc. As scientists, we have a line that must not be crossed in terms of the data and representing the data. But, there’s no rule that says you have to be a nice person. Ambitious people are often not particularly nice, but they do tend to get ahead, in science as elsewhere. As the story is about the top level of science in that field, it is populated with ambitious, complex, people.
RW: Even Chloe, the scientist who finally admits to making up her data, isn’t depicted in an entirely negative light. How did you imagine how such a “guilty” person would think and act, and why choose to portray her with a certain amount of sympathy?
PR: Chloe is a complex person, with good and bad traits. She crosses the line, but under slightly different circumstances, it is easy to imagine her not ending up in that situation. She would then most likely have the career she wanted. She is not that different from someone who does not make the bad choice. Societally, I think we have a tendency to excessively vilify people who do wrong. It is too easy to see things as black or white. I wanted to keep that whole complexity in the novel, not tell a moral tale.
RW: The novel includes a few interactions between scientists and journalists, and not all of those turn out well. Our mandate is to cover retractions, but to do so as impartial observers, trying to understand what happened so others can learn from the experience. What do you think is the role and/or responsibilities of journalists in covering scandals in science? Do you disagree with our mandate?
PR: The science journalist that we meet early in the book, Frank, is a very positive character. Christopher, who comes in later, is motivated by a unique and very personal animosity. So yes, their interactions differ a lot.
Obviously, is important that retractions are seen by scientists for whom the work has direct relevance. When you look up a paper online, retractions are always linked to the original paper, so you can’t help but notice if part or all of it has been retracted. This means working scientists have a natural mechanism to get the information they need. I’m less sure about the purpose of journalism that focuses on retractions. It would be very good if people use these stories to help them think about the issues. Experienced scientists will already know the rules, but seeing real cases may help younger scientists be better prepared. There may also be a less salubrious element to the reader’s interest, with which I’m less comfortable.
RW: In a Q&A at the back of the novel, you note that you retracted a Current Biology paper in 2009, over an honest error. Had we been around at that time, we likely would have covered the retraction, but since it was due to a mistake and you were so transparent about it, we likely would have considered it an example of “doing the right thing.” Another publication, The Scientist, covered the retraction (full disclosure, I was deputy editor at the time); you noted that this publicizing of the retraction was an unpleasant experience, and helped you understand why scientists might be hesitant to retract articles. Yet the PI in your story doesn’t seem to hesitate – if anything, as soon as he knows the results are wrong, he immediately alerts Nature. How did your experience of a retraction inform your storytelling in this novel?
PR: It did not play a major role, except for reminding me that it is not pleasant to continue to have “retraction” come up prominently in Google searches. This is what anyone looking for me sees. Either the person looking leaves it at that (and retains a weak bad association with my name) or they click on and look closer. They may then find the real story – which in my case was OK; I wasn’t mis-treated by journalists. Most of us would prefer “retraction” not be the first thing people learn about us.
In the story, the PI does waver a bit. He does not inform the journal as soon as he finds there could be a problem, but waits until after the lab has retested what look like problematic data. Had the found a different answer, what would he have done? Once things look really bleak, he acts quickly. But his main concern is not just to “do the right thing” but also to protect himself. Again, he is not totally right and not totally wrong. He is aware that he was pushing for answers earlier on. There is some ambiguity. I want the reader to see his thought process as things develop, and to form their own opinion about what he should or shouldn’t have done.
RW: Finally, I think readers would be curious to know more about your field as a researcher, and why you chose to leave bench science?
PR: I had 25 very interesting years in science and really enjoyed it. I worked in genetics and cell biology (specifically cell migration in Drosophila). But I also wanted to do something else with my life. Telling stories, writing novels is an old interest of mine and will be my future focus. I’m now working on a novel that is not set in science but also deals with personal and professional conflicts in the present-day world.
RW: I’d like to end the interview with a quote from the scientist who admitted to misconduct, which I think sums up many of the issues the novel addresses:
“Everyone is acting like what I did is so goddamned unthinkable. Come on, look around. The reviewers tell us exactly what result we need in order to secure that Nature paper. I cannot believe that I am the only one who has ever succumbed to that temptation. The difference is that I got caught. And it was completely by chance. I work my butt off and do everything right for years and years. Once, just once, I cross the line and then, Bam!, all eyes are on me, everyone is shocked.” She catches herself, stops up. “Look, I know it was wrong. I shouldn’t have done it.” She then leans forward and says, with surprising intensity: “But I just won’t buy that everyone else is a saint. I don’t believe it.”
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