Research Ethics Are Is For Chumps

Feb 21 2008 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

A recent post over at Adventures in Ethics and Science challenges "senior" scientists by asking "Hey you! Yes, YOU! What have you done to improve the snakepit?".
I'm not exactly a "senior" scientist but when did a little quibble like that stop me from offering an opinion?


Let's take Dr. Free-Ride's questions one at a time, shall we?

In your field, is it the case that senior people never take advantage of junior people -- never sink their grant proposals to protect their own scientific turf

This is a common suspicion and I've had a recent case myself where I thought I was being hosed on a proposal by people that had a horse in the race. As a member of a study section however, this is absolutely impossible to prove. Impossible even to come to a satisfactory gut-level confidence, in my view. The evaluation of grants is so tight, hinges on arbitrary factors and reflects an opaque weighting of factors to the point that it would take essentially a confession on the part of a reviewer to have such a case arise.

never steal their results or ideas, never cut them out of credit

Stealing results is one thing. And no, to answer the good Dr. Free-Ride, I've not yet come across first-person evidence of results stealing. What I have come across, however, is a tension between postdocs and PIs with respect to who "owns" data generated by the trainee while supported by the PIs grants. When in comes right down to it, the grant "owns" the data which means the PI owns at least partial right to it. The cases that I've seen in this respect do not feature a cutting off of credit. More a dispute over the degree of credit and postdocs wanting to withhold "their" data because of order-of-author disputes and the like. So this, at the worst, gets into an authorship "discussion"...but these reasonably run of the mill disagreements do not seem to me to be part of the ethics discussion at hand.
The notion of stealing "ideas" is even trickier. What is an "idea" of sufficient status to represent intellectual property? Just throwing out a half-arsed comment in lab meeting does not get one permanent claim rights. Talk of "claim jumping" in the recent paleontological dustup does not encourage me. Perhaps traditions are different in that field. In biomedical science you don't get to "stake out" territory. You collect the data and publish it, then you "own" the idea.

Or, do you hear the occasional complaint within your field about senior people who take advantage of junior people, or who fudge their data, or who engage in other practices that you think it would be better not to engage in?
What do you do when you hear these complaints? I'm not just asking what kind of advice you give to others who might be making these complaints -- I'm asking what do you do?

Nothing. Nor should anyone. Because a culture that foments unsubstantiated rumoring is an unethical one. There is plenty of loose talk about "I don't trust that lab's data" or "I hear nobody can replicate that" around the water cooler. I object to this. My response when this is directed to me is "Why?", "How do you know?" and "Why don't you publish the proof that they are wrong and then we'll talk". This is not because I am naive. This is because rumor-mongering is so much more likely to be fraught with bias and personal vendetta than it is to be backed by hard data. The only ethical solution I see is to assume innocence until there is some actual hard evidence of malfeasance. And in science the currency of evidence is a handful of data to back your opinion. Absent that, pipe down.

Do you have first-hand knowledge of people in your field working outside of "best practices" (even if what you're seeing probably falls short of official definitions of scientific misconduct)? How do you respond to what you see, and why do you respond the way you do?

Yes and no. In the paper review process, I certainly supply my opinion as to what "best practices" are with respect to "have the data supported the conclusions drawn". There are whole traditions that I don't trust in the sense that I don't agree with some of the basic assumptions about what is important and how to go about the experiment. This is not an ethical concern however, this is the process. Ditto people who embrace a standard of experimental rigor that is lesser than my own. Is this ethics? I think not. Other than this, no, I do not have first-hand knowledge of the kind of bad behavior I think the original post is attempting to address.
There are a few more challenges but it boils down to the same issues. And I have a lack of direct personal experience with clearly definable unethical behavior. I suspect the vast majority of scientist also lack definitive first-person knowledge of research misconduct. And so Dr. Free-Ride's essential question is moot. I can point to few direct actions I've taken because I've never been in the state of first-person certainty of bad behavior that she envisions.
I think it is very likely that the salience of unethical scientific conduct means that we vastly overestimate the actual prevalence. (Or perhaps that the drug-abuse fields are insufficiently "hot" as to drive a lot of research misconduct and this is just a reflection of my particular subfield.) Therefore it may be the case that it is actually expected value that most "senior" scientists will respond to this challenge with a shrug due to lack of direct knowledge, not because they are part of a coverup or are enablers. As Dr. Free-Ride seems to be suggesting!
After what might be considered a defense, I will leave with one place that I do agree with Dr. Free-Ride. It is my perception that the actual "senior" scientists in positions to have some effect, have their heads in the sand with respect to misconduct. I'm talking not the lack of direct personal experience that I'm detailing, but more a denial that this could really be a problem. And there I disagree. Research misconduct does exist (even if prevalence is uncertain) and its effects are pernicious. It is an issue that deserves serious attention and novel solutions.
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Update: Uncertain Principles has a response to Dr. Free-Ride up. So does Good Math, Bad Math.

25 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    So this, at the worst, gets into an authorship "discussion"...but these reasonably run of the mill disagreements do not seem to me to be part of the ethics discussion at hand.

    Well, maybe they should be. These kind of things occur vastly more frequently then outright fraud, and have a vastly greater overall corrosive effect on the scientific community than outright fraud.
    BTW, unless your title is some kind of pun I'm not getting, the "Are" should be an "Is", as "ethics" is singular.

  • Dan S. says:

    "Research Ethics Are For Chumps"
    Y'know, I initially misread the title of the post as 'Research Ethics are for Chimps'. Which is certainly true in a sense . . .

  • CC says:

    Well, maybe they should be. These kind of things occur vastly more frequently then outright fraud, and have a vastly greater overall corrosive effect on the scientific community than outright fraud.
    Honestly, it's a little unsettling how Janet Stemwedel, who is not only a specialist in scientific ethics and trains students in the subject, but who earned a PhD in the lab, seems so unfamiliar with the spectrum of ethical issues in research and their prevalence, and so surprised by the level of cynicism around the subject.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Here are two examples of scietific misconduct by senior scientists:
    1. A cancer researcher in Washington University, St. Louis, MO, a member of an NIH study section, receives a pile of grant proposals for review. He uses data included in one of the proposals to write a paper and publishes it in Cell, while the proposal itself is triaged. He does it more than once. Postdocs and students in his lab suspecting of some non-kosher behavior, but afraid to complain. A junior faculty member does complain and finds himself out of a job. A university committee investigates, find the culprit guilty, force him to retract the papers, the university fires him and reports the investigating committee's findings to the ORI. ORI investigates, but does not take any action. A colleague of the culprit, who left Washington U with a cloud over his head and is now a chairman at another institution, hires the fired culprit where he is now an endowed chair in the cancer center of that institute.
    2. As a member of an NIH study section I received a pile of grant proposals for review. One of the proposals is by a very famous neuroscientist who had been at the time the president of the largest scientific society in his field. The guy is used to the fact that all his proposals are funded. I found his proposal poorly written, with minimal supporting data and nonexisting literature search that would resulted in the discovery that some of his proposed experiments would not work. My score on his proposal along with that of one additional member of the study section doomed it and it was not funded. A few weeks later, I received a correspondence from the NIH including a copy of a letter of complaint from said neuroscientist. I was asked to reconsider my score on the proposal. The PI himself did not provide any additional data in his letter, he simply whined that all his past proposals were approved and funded and that the fate of his unfunded proposal should be the same. I stood my grounds and was relieved of my duties on the study section. The other member of the study section who scored the proposal low was also relieved of his duties. I have no idea whether or not the said proposal was then funded or not. I do know that this big shot neuroscientist (M.D., Ph.D.) left his academic career for a nice cushioned position in the pharmaceutical industry.

  • whimple says:

    A few weeks later, I received a correspondence from the NIH including a copy of a letter of complaint from said neuroscientist. I was asked to reconsider my score on the proposal.
    The NIH really does this? Why bother? They could just programmatically fund the proposal if that's what they wanted to do.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    The NIH really did it. That's how I learned about the PI's complaint. It was 1999 or 2000. I think that the NIH do not get complaint letters very often if at all. I think that the fact they sent me a copy of the letter shows how surprised they were about it. Or, it could be simply the action, the correct action I might add, of the chairperson of the study section who wanted to make sure that the complainant grievances are answered by those who sunk the proposal. I do believe that the decision to relieve me of my duties were not made by the chairperson, rather by an NIH administrator.

  • PhysioProf says:

    "A few weeks later, I received a correspondence from the NIH including a copy of a letter of complaint from said neuroscientist. I was asked to reconsider my score on the proposal. The PI himself did not provide any additional data in his letter, he simply whined that all his past proposals were approved and funded and that the fate of his unfunded proposal should be the same. I stood my grounds and was relieved of my duties on the study section. The other member of the study section who scored the proposal low was also relieved of his duties."
    This is a very serious allegation of actions that involve violation of Federal laws and administrative regulations. It also sounds extremely unlikely to me, given my own experiences with the NIH bureaucracy. You got any evidence that this happened?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    When you write that "this is a very serious allegation" do you mean the letter written by the whining PI or the fact that I was relieved of my duties? If you meant that writing a letter to the NIH study section chairperson to complain about not being funded, I think there is nothing wrong with such a letter (I do have a copy of that letter). If you meant that relieving me of my duties is a serious allegation, I agree it is serious, but I cannot prove to you that this was the reason for relieving me. I was transfered to another study section that was not part of my expertise and after one meeting of that section in Washington, my participation in any NIH study section was over.

  • PhysioProf says:

    I meant that an NIH official would provide you a copy of such a letter, attempt to strong-arm you into changing your score, and then discharge you for non-compliance.
    You say you have this letter. How about you redact identifying information, and then post a scan of the original, so we can assess your claim?

  • Curious says:

    I was transfered to another study section that was not part of my expertise and after one meeting of that section in Washington, my participation in any NIH study section was over.
    So, just so I'm clear on this. You were actually appointed as a standing member to one study section and in the middle of the appointment term, appointed to a different section for one round?
    You don't mean that you were ad hoc and then just never invited back? Because that would be common I would think...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    he simply whined that all his past proposals were approved and funded and that the fate of his unfunded proposal should be the same.
    Gee, we've never heard of this before!
    I just don't understand where these people get off. It is a changed world my friends. Crap proposals no longer get funded just because of who the PI happens to be. Deal with it. You're smart folks, learn the process. Would they complain that the type of study that "used to" get into Science is no longer good enough for their society journal? Heck no, they raise their game. Why can't they see this is the same for the quality of their grant proposal...

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Physioprof,
    Admittedly, I do not like the tone in your response, doubting my sincerity. I am not about to open an old grave. Almost 10 years have past since the incident occured. I should have realized then that something was fishy and act. I did not. I can live with it. Yet, I brought it up here to demonstrate that senior scientists are capable of misdeeds.
    Curious,
    Yes, I was a standing member of a study section. After the incident I did not receive any additional review assignments from this study section. A year later I was invited to become an ad-hoc member of another study section, served on it once and was never called back.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Yes, I was a standing member of a study section. After the incident I did not receive any additional review assignments from this study section.

    This certainly sounds suspicious. Shall we further assume that you'd been on for multiple rounds, getting your 6-10 grant load and then...crickets chirping? Without any type of reorganization of study sections in the topic area? As PP said, this sounds like serious stuff. I've never heard the like. Anyone else? Heard of a reviewer getting booted (for any reason)?

    A year later I was invited to become an ad-hoc member of another study section, served on it once and was never called back.

    This part indicates very little. Some ad hoc reviewers are called back fairly frequently, true. But some show up once and are never seen again in my section. This is not unusual nor anything particularly suspicious.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Drugmonkey,
    Well, the other member of that very study section who, like me, triaged said grant proposal, was relieved of his duties in the same way, he never received any grant proposal for review afterwords, which simply left him out. I met him the following year in the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, where he asked me if I'm still on the study section. When I told him that I had not received grant proposals for review, he concurred that this is exactly what happened to him. He then told me that he also received a copy of the PI letter, that he did not change his score of the PI proposal and that he believed that that was the reason for keeping us out. I admit that, at the time of these events, I did not questioned the reasons for me being relieved of my duties, at least in part because the whole task was very taxing on my time and I did not mind not going back. However, after talking with the other member of the study section and learing that he found himself with the same outcome, I became suspicious of the reasons for our termination, not necessarily of the procedure by which we were terminated. Actually, it is only from your own response here that I, for the first time, am learning that my termination might not be kosher.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "Actually, it is only from your own response here that I, for the first time, am learning that my termination might not be kosher."
    of course, the way this was done would make it impossible to prove a reason. "Gee we just didn't happen to have anything appropriate to your expertise".
    but yeah, if it went down the way you say, that an appointed reviewer was removed from study section behavior because one influential PI didn't like the review he received...that is most certainly not kosher.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Listen,
    This is not the first time that you have voiced doubts about my accounts regarding scientific misconduct. You have questioned details about a case where I was a whistleblower and accused me of promoting the book I wrote about it on "Adventures in Ethics and Science" Blog. Later you declared that you will buy the book and read it before you post your opinion about it. That's was at least six months ago and your "review" is nowhere to be found. Now you question my sincerity regarding the events on an NIH study section I was a member of. When I was appointed to that study section, I saw it as a recognition of the quality of my scientific work in the field by peers at the NIH and elsewhere. I worked very hard to fullfil my duties by agreeing to become a member of the study section and, despite the enormous demand on my time, I believe I did a good job over and over again. After attending three meeting in Washington, when I did not receive my regular pile of grant proposals for review for the scheduled next meeting, I did not think twice about it and, as I have mentioned before, I was almost relieved that the expected pile of proposals did not arrive. Only a few months later, when I met the other member of the study section in a scientific meeting that I became suspicious of the reasons for me (and him) being left out. Now, you can either take my words at their face value, knowing that I have no ax to grind here, just describing decade-old events that may point at corruption in high places, or you can, as an NIH insider, continue to believe and promote the idea that the process of grant peer review at the NIH is pure and clean. In a way, your doubts regarding my sincerity, both in this case and the one mentioned at the beginning of this post, is typical for most scientists who refuse to believe that there are rotten apples among us, especially among the biggest and the shiniest ones.
    BTW, I did went back and checked several publications of said PI, which were published 1-3 years after the incident. Several are dealing with the very topic of his triaged grant proposal and the acknowledments in those publications indicate that the research was funded in part by an NIH grant. I think it is thus reasonable to assume that this particular grant application of said PI was funded after all.

  • whimple says:

    My guess is that if examined with sufficient scrutiny the entire NIH granting system would be found to be a swiss cheese of graft, corruption and collusion to varying degrees at all levels from top to bottom. When there's no oversight, with human nature being what it is with big cash on the line, I wouldn't expect any different.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dude, ease up. I'm agreeing with you.
    Later you declared that you will buy the book and read it before you post your opinion about it. That's was at least six months ago and your "review" is nowhere to be found.
    That was Bill Hooker, not me. Go bother him. I think my position was that I wasn't going to subject myself to the cutesy names and likely "style" based on your comments. That I still stand by. I mean, cripes, that Crichton book on science misconduct was nearly unreadable...
    Now, you can either take my words at their face value, knowing that I have no ax to grind here, just describing decade-old events that may point at corruption in high places,
    The point you continue to miss is that we do not know you from a hole in the wall!!!! You would lower your blood pressure if you would realize that there are a lot of nutjobs making various claims in internet type forums. When people challenge you and ask for more detail it is because your little hints here and there are unsatisfying. The scientific mind seeks alternative explanations at all times. There are people with axes to grind and people willing to make false claims. Just like there are plenty of examples of real wrongdoing. We do not automatically know which you are. It helps to convince people when all the evidence lines up and the number of plausible alternatives have been reduced to a minimum.
    or you can, as an NIH insider, continue to believe and promote the idea that the process of grant peer review at the NIH is pure and clean.
    an "insider" eh? go spend some time on the old site and see if you continue to hold this view that I'm an apologist for the OldBoyz aspects of the system.
    your doubts regarding my sincerity, both in this case and the one mentioned at the beginning of this post, is typical for most scientists who refuse to believe that there are rotten apples among us, especially among the biggest and the shiniest ones.
    oh please. Never have I suggested there are no rotton apples, nor do I believe it. quite the contrary. What I do believe is that unexamined claims, often absent much detail, are corrosive to science. because many of them are assuredly either false or boil down to legitimate and debatable issues in science. This unfairly damages the reputation of science while at the same time distracting us from the real cases.
    getting back to the specific study section issue, i was right to ask questions. because this:

    I was transfered to another study section that was not part of my expertise and after one meeting of that section in Washington, my participation in any NIH study section was over

    is not really accurate given this:

    A year later I was invited to become an ad-hoc member of another study section, served on it once and was never called back.

    someone who is imprecise about ad hoc versus appointed membership in one case might be in another. Hence my question (that was me) asking if you were really appointed. To my eye, this makes a world of difference from merely not being invited back for additional ad hoc participation. Not that it might not arise from the same motivations, just that it is a more active decision.
    look at this all in another way. You're typical comment gives us the Discussion without the Results section. Does it really mystify you that a scientific audience might want to see the data?

  • PhysioProf says:

    graft, corruption and collusion to varying degrees at all levels from top to bottom.

    I seriously doubt you will find much of this. The granularity of the NIH grant-making process is way too small and the decision-making processes of the grant recipients--almost all academic institutions--are way too decentralized to provide fertile territory for graft, corruption, and collusion. This not to say you won't find inefficiency, poor decision making, and sub-optimal outcomes.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Dude, ease up. I'm agreeing with you.

    Yeah, I'm the one who thinks you are full of shit.

    Now, you can...take my words at their face value, knowing that I have no ax to grind here, just describing decade-old events that may point at corruption in high places[.]

    Dude, you've been running all over the Internet doing keyword searches for "scientific misconduct" and "scientific fraud". Everywhere you find such a discussion going on, you start throwing around completely unsubstantiated accusations that this dude at Louisville--who doesn't even seem to have any more NIH funding as of the last few years--is a crook.
    One of your claims is that the data in one of his grad students' PhD theses was "stolen" and put in a grant application. Guess what: this is how things work in the biological/biomedical sciences; there is nothing wrong with this. Ideas and experiments generated in a laboratory by trainees inure to the benefit of the lab head, in terms of authorship, grant applications, and credit. They also inure to the benefit of the trainee.
    And now you're telling us that there was a conspiracy at NIH between program officers and scientific review officers to throw you off a study section because you wouldn't join in their conspiracy to improve the score of a triaged grant. This is an implausible scenario for multiple reasons, and thus the onus is on you to justify this remarkable claim.
    Saying you have no axe to grind is a joke. If you really gave a shit about anything other than gratifying your own ego with your perceived moral rectitude and the moral failures of others, then you wouldn't just be running all over the Internet making unsubtantiated grandiose claims and shilling anonymous innuendo-driven drivel. If you really are a "whistleblower", and you have already blown the whistle, then why do you not substantiate your claims?
    You claim to have all kinds of evidence of serious wrongdoing by a variety of different scientists and administrators. Put up or shut up.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Dudes,
    As to the NIH fiasco, I have already said that I cannot prove a connection between the letter sent by the complaining PI and the termination of my membership on the study section. As to the case in Louisville and the whistleblowing that exposed the plagiarism and data falsification of the chairmen of two departments (not intelectual property dispute, as Physioprof insinuates), I will be more than willing to post the dozens of pages that the two copied verbatim from their doctoral student's thesis along with the falsifide data as appeared in their funded grant proposal (not NIH grant). I am willing to creat a separate blog for that purpose, unless you have a better idea of where to post them.
    BTW, just because you could not trace any awarded NIH grant to Fred Roisen (one of the chairmen) does not mean he is not a Co-I on several of them. And even if he hasn't got any NIH grant, how that in any way closes the door on this fraudster who continues to head the same department, continue to publish scientific papers in respectable journals and most importantly, continues to mentor doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows?
    Also, I apologize for the mix-up between drugmonkey and physioprof.

  • Bill Hooker says:

    I did buy and read the book; I even took a bunch of notes.
    I don't have time for the promised review (I will get to it, but it's not at the top of my priority list). Bottom line, I think the alleged misconduct was real and, pace PhysioProf above, was misconduct -- but you have to read the book to get the level of detail that makes me think so, and even then you are left with no definitive evidence.
    I think Rivlin hit the point where he'd done everything sensible that he could, and the bad guy was still gonna win, and he just couldn't let it go. I feel bad for him, as I'd probably get a bitter, hate-filled ulcer myself if I were in his shoes.
    More to the point, Rivlin's is a good study case for talking about whistleblowers in general: what standards of evidence do we demand from them, and what protections should we give them? Ideally, Rivlin should have faced a situation where he could place his evidence in public, Wossname (the alleged bad guy) could place his defense in the same forum, and anyone could judge for themselves (and the university would be forced to defend their response). But we all know it doesn't work like that, especially once lawyers are called in and especially if there really is something unethical going on.
    So I think PP is, and I was, a bit unfair to Rivlin. His case points out a hard and important problem.
    To Solomon Rivlin: six months ago, you said that you would consider posting scans of the original documents cited in your book. Any further thoughts on that?
    The reason I ask is that evidence is central here: you're a scientist trying to convince scientists, so it should be no surprise to you when people want data. Things would go a good deal more smoothly, I think, if you would lay out all the pertinent evidence -- and where you cannot or will not, say so and say why. (Some of it might be available via a FOIA request; I'd be willing to go to that much trouble at least.) You could do this all in one place, on your own website, and then never have to go over and over the same details every time you contribute to a blog discussion.

  • PhysioProf says:

    We would be fascinated to see any documents you are willing to post that shed light on your claims of fraud and corruption. This includes everything you mention. Please don't leave out the letter sent to NIH by the complaining PI.
    Your idea of uploading this stuff to a blog created for the purpose is an excellent one. I suggest you go to WordPress.com for a free blog, as both DrugMonkey and I are facile with WordPress, and can help you if you need it.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Bill and PP,
    I appreciate the more friendly tone of your latest responses. I will begin scanning the most pertinent documents I have for the scientific misconduct case I was involved in personally as a whistleblower (there are hundreds of them and it may take some time). I will not, as I have mentioed earlier, post any documents in regard to my service on the NIH study section for the simple fact that I do not have any proof that my dismissal has anything to do with my triaging a proposal of a big shot PI. His letter to the chairman of the study section complaining about not funding his proposal, on its own, is legitimate way to voice an objection to the decision of the panel and I cannot see any wrongdoing with writing such a letter.
    I know that I said in the past that I will consider posting evidence of scientific misconduct for everyone to see. I has been hesitant to do so until now, since I was still an active and fully employed faculty member of the same institution where the two chairmen work. I am now retired and am an emeritus professor, not given anymore to whims and retaliatory actions of corrupted administrators. Thus, I am ready now to go ahead with the full exposure of such evidence.
    A possible solution to the handling of alleged scientific misconduct cases in academic and research institutions could be by adapting a similar system to the one that overseeing and supervising the conduct of college athletic departments (NCAA).

  • S. Rivlin says:

    The first set of pages from a grant proposal that includes significant quantity of plagiarized text from a doctoral thesis is now posted on a new blog:
    http://srivlin.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/how-i-became-a-whistleblower/

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