A former employee admitted to scientific misconduct. His new institution likely doesn’t know. What should you do?

A few years ago, Richard Miller of the University of Michigan had a serious dilemma: He discovered a former researcher in his lab was doing research somewhere else. Normally, that would be fine — except this research had admitted to committing misconduct in Miller’s lab.

Should he tell the researcher’s new employer?

This turns out to be a a question with no easy answer, especially if the former researcher was simply accused of misconduct, and takes a new job before the lengthy investigation process wraps up. How can researchers balance the need to protect an accused person’s privacy with a future employer’s right to know?

It’s a problem that many fields face, including science. To read more, check out our latest feature, based on material obtained through public records requests and published today as a collaboration with Undark.

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7 thoughts on “A former employee admitted to scientific misconduct. His new institution likely doesn’t know. What should you do?”

  1. Honestly, I think the right thing to do is to say nothing. Everyone deserves a “second chance”, as they say.

    But more importantly, the offending researcher fabricated data. Now, the former boss is considering whether or not to break privacy (and perhaps university regulations) and tell his new boss. I think rules such as privacy should be strictly followed as that’s what those rules are in place for. If they are to be broken, then the decision should be left to a higher body within the university so that the ultimate decision is shared by others who are not involved in the case.

    It wouldn’t be good if the former employer ends up being accused of being nosy or petty or vengeful. Sometimes we aren’t rewarded for doing a good deed…

  2. Given the tremendous cost of misconduct in research (see Stern et al, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4132287/), I wonder if the time is ripe for some well-grounded entity to consider establishing a registry for those who commit scientific misconduct, especially for repeat offenders whose fraud has the potential of placing the public at risk (this idea has been proposed by Tony Segal, see https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/faking-it/420958.article) . A ‘National -Science- Offender Public Website’ modeled after the one for sex offenders: https://www.nsopw.gov/? Even better: Make it an International SOPW.

    Of course, many questions arise about such registries: Which entity should be put in charge of such a registry? What should be the criteria for inclusion? For how long should an offender be included? If not public, who should be given access to the registry?

    1. Pursuant to Migel Roig’s suggestion for tracking repeat offenders for research fraud, Mark Davis, criminologist/sociologist at Ohio State University’s Criminal Justice Center, has recently published a very readable, delightful book (with some deep theoretical analysis chapters) on research misconduct as viewed by an expert criminologist-sociologist, who has for many years studied the literature in several related intellectual fields and has evaluated Office of Research Integrity (ORI) misconduct case files in depth. He concludes that research misconduct has such significant impacts on the research field and its “victims” that it should be treated, and its perpetrators sanctioned, as a crime.

      Scholarly Crimes and Misdemeanors: Violations of Fairness and Trust in the Academic World
      By Mark S. Davis and Bonnie Berry (© 2018 – Routledge) 154 pages
      or https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781351381536

      I recommend it to research misconduct enthusiasts.

  3. Very interesting story. Perhaps universities/institutions should include a declaration from the applicant that they have no findings or open investigations of misconduct against them. If they do have an open investigation against them, then they can be asked to sign a release for the investigating institution to inform the new institution. However, if they don’t disclose then they were dishonest in their application and that could be grounds for later dismissal whether or not they findings of misconduct were upheld.

    1. I have to admit, I like this idea of your’s Adrian. It’s sort of like when you enter a country and have to fill in an immigration form which asks if you’ve committed a crime or have been deported elsewhere. If the country you’re visiting asked around to other embassies about your record, it would be an invasion of privacy. But this way puts the pressure on the employee.

      And if someone admits past misconduct, a sympathetic employer can choose to hire him/her at a lower salary and give them another chance but with a lot more scrutiny. Let them “work off” their crime instead of being punished for life… (Though they must always check “Yes” in that misconduct box if it is phrased as “have you ever” instead of “have you ever in the last X years” — it’s like something bad on a transcript; it follows you for life.)

  4. I have several comments.

    1) Do you believe people are “innocent until proven guilty”? Including people who are the targets of open investigations, or who have only been accused, negates that basic principle.

    2) The standards used to conclude that research misconduct occurred are actually very, very low – the vast majority of cases, especially those for lab work (excluding clinical trials), would never result in a criminal conviction.

    Here are several reasons why:
    a) Scientists don’t have full control of their lab books or samples; how easy would it be for a disgruntled coworker to frame someone?
    b) Scientists are expected to understand in-depth material and any incompetency could be made to look like deliberate subterfuge.
    c) Many work around the clock, and exhaustion can lead to errors. “Honest mistakes” are not considered misconduct BUT it is extremely hard to prove that anything was an honest mistake.
    d) Using the principle “if there’s no record of it, it didn’t happen” how many scientists with imperfect documentation skills would fall under research misconduct? Has anyone ever taken their experimental notes on a sheet of paper, with a plan to tape it into their notebook, and then lost the paper? All indications (blots, samples, etc etc etc) from that point on would then be considered misconduct, because you cannot definitively prove the entire process, even if it was performed according to an SOP.

    3) Research fraud does occur, but it needs to be differentiated from cases in which someone is being thrown under the bus because they are unpopular or their research/documentation skills are imperfect and a paranoid colleague is after them. It is not OK to destroy someone’s career and well-being without just cause, and right now our standards are very low.

    1. If what you’re suggesting is true in the real world, I would think there would be lots of instances of respondents heading to court and winning their cases. But I think it’s fairly rare.

      In practice, the standards applied by misconduct investigators are not necessarily low. I have personally participated in multiple misconduct inquiries and investigations. Our (investigation committees) standard was preponderance. This is potentially lower than “reasonable doubt” or “clear and convincing”, etc. However, when the investigation team has access to published papers, grant applications (funded or not), computer files (images, graphs, spreadsheets, posters, etc.), of the respondent(s) and others, often it’s clear beyond ANY doubt if misconduct has occurred. (If you don’t believe me, check out pubpeer. There are hundreds {at least} of papers in which data misuse is highlighted. In so many of those, it’s inconceivable that the misuse was accidental.)

      If there is misconduct, what remains is to ascertain who is/are the responsible party or parties. This is more difficult, in my experience, than determining if misconduct has taken place. But even so, with a well-executed investigation, even this determination is easier than it appears to those on the outside (e.g., from the perspective of one who hasn’t been involved in the investigation process).

      It is imperative that confidentiality of respondents is protected by all involved in the process. It is important for investigation committees to be serious and expend all reasonable efforts to come to solid, valid conclusions. The primary flaw in the process, in my experience, is in the pace of the process (too slow) and in the lack of transparency. So, once a conclusion is reached, it should be disseminated widely, so there are no more “secrets” regarding the case. In my experience, I still maintain confidentiality, though the respondent is not held to the same standard and in one case does everything possible to tarnish my reputation. If I could speak about the case, people would understand, I could protect my reputation, and potentially the time or the investigation process from beginning to end could be shortened.

      Incidentally, can you point me to a case in which an innocent person was “thrown under the bus” because he/she was unpopular or some paranoid person was out to get them? I’d be interested in reading about that case. Thanks in advance.

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