Ethics reminder for scientists

If the lab head tells the trainees or techs that a specific experimental outcome* must be generated by them, this is scientific misconduct.

If the lab head says a specific experimental outcome is necessary to publish the paper, this may be very close to misconduct or it may be completely aboveboard, depending on context. The best context to set is a constant mantra that any outcome teaches us more about reality and that is the real goal.

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*no we are not talking about assay validation and similar technical development stuff.

15 responses so far

  • JL says:

    DM, the practice is much more complicated than that. A trainee comes looking for a project, you describe the project, including the hypothesis to tes. They go out to do experiments. The bias is already there, sadly. They know you formulated the hypothesis.

    While all experiments teach us something, it is not the same. Finding out the effects of something is far more interesting than proving that the hypothesis was not true and that you still don't know what it does. Sometimes both are still publishable, but other times the second one is not. Indeed, I still rather know the second one than incorrectly think I know the first one, but it is not always the case that they are equally exciting.

  • Draino says:

    Do PIs really say "you must produce this result or else"? To the level of scientific misconduct? Huh, I've worked in a lab with a strong PI where dodgy things happened but that didn't happen.

    Surely it's okay to say you would prefer one outcome over another. To say you have an expectation based on previous results. A rationale. A hypothesis.

    Agreed, you have to accept the outcome of the experiment. Sometimes it's the result you are most sure of, which comes out the opposite, that is most enlightening and publishable.

  • Ria says:

    @Draino, yes, some of them do. I had this happen to me (the "or else" was my ability to graduate).

  • jmz4 says:

    "If the lab head says a specific experimental outcome is necessary to publish the paper, this may be very close to misconduct or it may be completely aboveboard, depending on context."
    -Also, if they qualify "to publish the paper..." with "...in that glam journal", that seems pretty standard and aboveboard. They're just asserting their judgement on what makes a paper "good" enough for that journal.

    I've had multiple bosses say that. I've said it myself, to collaborators. However, thinking more about it now, I'm not sure it is a good habit to continue with. Dangling high profile journal submissions in front of grad students isn't, maybe, the best thing to encourage scientific rigor and an appreciation for the spirit of why we do science.

  • JL says:

    jmz4, good point. How far can this go? When. PI tells someone in the lab: you can go to the conference if you have something interesting to show. Could this be basing the trainee to make sure they have that interesting thing?

  • Adam says:

    In grad school, my advisor frequently hypothesized contrary to the preceding literature. This had the advantage that if your experiment didn't produce the result he was predicting, you got the result that was consistent with the literature (publishable, if not exciting), and if your experiment produced the result he was predicting, that was also interesting (exciting, if maybe harder to publish). Win/win. I feel like this sort of mitigated some of the inherent bias of testing hypotheses advanced by an advisor.

    I try to be careful never to use phrases around the lab like, "the result we want" or the "result we expect", but rather "the result we predict". I feel like expectations are less based on evidence than predictions for some reason. We are also careful not to say that a certain extra experimental result would make the study publishable in a certain journal or class of journals, but we do discuss whether it would make the conclusions more interesting to a broader audience, which amounts to the same thing in practice.

    Apropos of the "you can go to the conference if you have something interesting to show" comment: I'm a naturally curious person, so I find a lot of things interesting that other people might find mundane. I've found that a substantial component of scientific communication (both for disseminating results and applying for grants) is to transmit that interest to the audience. Perhaps a better approach for the PI in this case might be: "Take your result as is to the conference, but put it in interesting packaging."

  • Grumble says:

    "PI tells someone in the lab: you can go to the conference if you have something interesting to show. Could this be basing the trainee to make sure they have that interesting thing?"

    I tell my trainees what my old PIs used to tell me: you can go to a conference (at my lab's expense) if you have an abstract and a poster or talk. End of requirement. There is no additional need for the content of the abstract/poster/talk to be "interesting," except to the extent that it has to be interesting enough for the conference organizers to accept it.

    I think that's reasonable, and doesn't unduly bias students/post-docs to produce any particular result. Even for some smaller conferences, almost any result will be accepted for a poster, and SFN accepts literally anything.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Agree with Grumble. About the last reason to decide on going to a meeting is the precise nature of your experimental outcome this year.

  • JL says:

    " You just need to have an abstract" is a very low bar. As you said, some conferences accept anything, or almost anything. I can't afford to send everyone to every conference. Part of the training is to work with them to produce good work and solid abstracts. I didn't say that they only go if they prove MY hypothesis. But they definitely need results, and results take time and effort.

    So, Grumble and DM, what do you do when a trainee/tech comes to you with a weak abstract and asks to go to the conference on your dime?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Depends on if we have the funds and if there is a purpose to going to this particular meeting for the trainee, for the tech or for our lab. Scientific meetings are not only about the "push" of presenting data. People go to learn, to make themselves known in the field, to network, to seek job opportunities....

  • Jmz4 says:

    I'd argue that the medium to large meetings are most useful when you are just getting into field. They really help give you a sense of the scope and state of the field you're in.

    The smaller meetings seem to be better places to network and get your name in front of the people hiring committees are going to be emailing when they go over your application. Or the people that'll hire you as a postdoc if you decide to stay in the field. Thus, they're more suitable for late stage trainees to showcase their data.

  • potnia theron says:

    If one formulates one's questions, such that either Yes or No provides interesting scientific results, this problem is lessened. Along the lines of "does X impact Y?", if yes, we understand Y better. In a well constructed paradigm, if X does NOT impact Y, then we also have learned something valuable about Y. This is also valuable for grant proposal writing, as it means that no matter what happens, your work will be useful, something of which study sections are enamored.

  • Grumble says:

    "So, Grumble and DM, what do you do when a trainee/tech comes to you with a weak abstract and asks to go to the conference on your dime?"

    I have never had a single trainee do this. If anything, I've had to push them to submit abstracts when they thought they didn't yet have a complete enough story -- I have to point out that it's "only an abstract" and that an incomplete story is not only perfectly fine for a poster, but that one of the points of poster presentations is to solicit feedback from others about where to go next with the line of research. Students and post-docs, however, are very aware that other presentations at the conference will contain much more complete stories, and they don't want their own work to look weak and incomplete in comparison.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Complete stories are the very antithesis of academic meetings. Big fail.

  • Grumble says:

    I completely disagree with your contention that complete stories are completely wrong for academic meetings. They do have a place, but their presence also should not prevent incomplete stories from also being presented.

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