Rehabilitation of Science Cheaters

May 17 2018 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

Nature relates a case of a convicted science cheat attempting to rehabilitate himself.

last August, the University of Tokyo announced that five of Watanabe’s papers contained manipulated images and improperly merged data sets that amounted to scientific misconduct. One of those papers has since been retracted and two have been corrected. Two others have corrections under consideration, according to Watanabe. Another university investigation into nine other papers found no evidence of misconduct.

ok, pretty standard stuff. Dude busted for manipulating images. Five papers involved so it isn't just a one time oopsie.

Watanabe says that the university’s investigation made him aware of “issues concerning contrast in pictures and checking original imaging files”. He says, however, that he did not intend to deceive and that the issues did not affect the main conclusions of the papers.

They always claim that. Oh, it doesn't change the results so it isn't fraud. Oh? Well if you needed that to get the paper accepted (and by definition you did) then it was fraud. Whether it changes the overall conclusions or whether (as is claimed in other cases) the data can be legitimately re-created is immaterial to the fraud.

Julia Cooper, a molecular biologist at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, says that data manipulation is never acceptable. But she thinks the sanctions were too harsh and incommensurate with the degree of wrongdoing. “Yoshinori absolutely deserves a second chance,” she says.

This is, of course, the central question for today's discussion. Should we let science cheats re-enter science? Can they be "rehabilitated"? Should they be?

Uhlmann is unsure whether it will make a difference. He commends Watanabe’s willingness to engage with his retraining, but says “we will only know at the end of it whether his heart is where his mouth is”.

Watanabe emphasizes that his willingness to embark on the training and acknowledgement that he made errors is evidence that he will change his ways.

Fascinating, right? Watanabe says the investigation brought it to his attention that he was doing something wrong and he claims it as an "error" rather than saying "yeah, man, I faked data and I got caught". Which one of these attitudes do you think predict a successful rehabilitation?

and, where should such a person receive their rehabilitation?

[Watanabe is] embarking on an intensive retraining programme with Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse in London.
Nurse, who mentored Watanabe when he was a postdoctoral researcher in the 1990s, thinks that the biologist deserves the opportunity to redeem himself. “The research community and institutions need to think more about how to handle rehabilitation in cases like this,” says Nurse, a cell biologist and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Nurse declined to comment further on the retraining.

So. He's going to be "rehabilitated" by the guy who trained him as a postdoc and this supervisor refuses to comment on how this rehabilitation is to be conducted or, critically, evaluated for success.


H/t a certain notorious troll

14 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    Should we let science cheats re-enter science?

    No. Five papers? Hellz no.

  • JL says:

    The awesome thing about science is that we don't get to decide that universally. Small groups of people get to make the decision in their particular environment. The UK funding agency will have to decide. Nature journals will get to decide. NIH, in case he applies, will get to decide. Each reader of one of his papers will get to decide. Ultimately, he could continue trying to write papers and tryign to get them published. Much more difficult if the big grantors don't give him a chance. But a wonderful thing in science is that there is no single one place, group or person that gets to decide. Same as variability in grant and paper reviews. It's a feature of the system, not a bug.

    Personally, I would not trust his papers. But there are other people whose papers I don't trust even though they have not been officially found cheating.

  • Lilian says:

    I'm currently taking a RCR course as a training biologist, and it's interesting just how lenient scientific community is about this. Out of the class of 8, I was the only one who said in a class discussion that cheats should be expelled from the community. It's also interesting that most of these cheaters suffer very little consequences compared to their transgressions, many re-publishing within a year, or happily moving to private sectors (e.g. Elizabeth Goodwin).

    The people who DO get burned badly are the students.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Are you missing the point that many aspects of science are zero-sum. When pages in Nature are awarded to one person, another person is shut out. NIH or Welcome grant budgets are not expanded to meet all requests. Lab space is typically finite, as are the positions required to use that space.

  • thorazine says:

    The other problem with this specific case is that, in this case, the UK funding agency doesn't get to decide. Paul Nurse is bigger than that - right now, in UK science, he is maybe bigger than anyone else. He can decide unilaterally that his old buddy gets another chance, and he can decide to devote as much funding to that effort as he likes, at no cost to himself or to anyone else he cares about. He can take all the space that's required for this at will, and somebody else will pay that price, too.

  • Arlenna says:

    Similarly the faculty who sexually harass or assault their trainees. I don’t think there’s any rehabilitation process that would ever make trainees and their careers safe with those people. I don’t think they should be allowed to supervise people anymore, ever.

  • JL says:

    DM, that is a good point, and there are other good points. Yet, I still like the fact that there isn´t a single entity that decides what is acceptable and good, and what isn´t.

    The zero sum game isn't necessarily always helpful either. I have seen people attack grant applications and papers viciously under that flag. Once it's been decided that X is beyond redemption, anything goes...

    I am more worried about the example raised by thorazine, where one person has so much power that they can single-handedly erase the misconduct effects.

  • ginger says:

    I guess the infinite affection, tolerance and trust extended to mediocre white guys who “have an oversight” in Western countries is also extended to mediocre Japanese guys in Japan.

  • jmz4 says:

    "I guess the infinite affection, tolerance and trust extended to mediocre white guys who “have an oversight” in Western countries is also extended to mediocre Japanese guys in Japan."
    -Do you have any evidence this has anything to do with race or gender? If not, it's probably a distraction.

    Yes, there should be a path back. It should involve no longer being eligible to direct funds or train individuals. It should involve an extra progress report on ethics compliance to whatever IC (or equivalent) supplies your grant and an outside reviewer (from another institution) to review data and publications.

  • Assistant prof says:

    No, we don’t need a path back for PIs. Not cheating should not be remotely hard or confusing. It is zero-sum. (Though I do worry at night about whether I might be able to catch all forms of fraud from trainees. I probably wouldn’t. But that would be restricted to a few papers.)

    This reminds me of a #metoo related rehabilitation of West Coast BSD in the lab of an East Coast BSD. More refuge than rehabilitation, but the East Coast BSD’s statements were similar to Nurse’s and carried much weight. East Coast BSD came down under harassment charges from multiple female scientists a year later. What loss having those scumbags around for so long.

  • chall says:

    There are times when I wonder if the fact that there doesn't seem to be much of a "regular world verdict' (e.g. being convicted for fraud in court) makes it harder to establish "when is time served and deemed back into the community if ever".

    Then I think about doping in various sports, since these cases are rarely judged in court either, and wonder if that would be the way to go. In certain sports, first offense of doping (regardless whether it was intentional or unintentional) gets you a fine and a suspension for a few months/years. Second offense however, is deemed worse and can in some cases lead to life time ban.

    While harsh, at a certain point there is a accountability factor for all of us in science, and the public who both funds and hopefully benefits in the long run, who get affected by these cheaters. "can you really trust science" gets more air time and it's harder to argue why you haven't cheated if there are less consequences etc (even though I would love to argue that it's a moral thing but I digress).

    It's seems consequences for the individual scientist caught with dubious pictures/cheating are more severe the lower they are on the ladder (PhD students in labs never getting their degree) whereas at a certain level, the higher ranking people can potentially taint several other high people that it might be "easier" to do a slap on the hand and wish for rehabilitation. Notable exception would be the PI who had to repay NIH/university for the money they received based on fraudulent data in a grant application. However, that fit the "fraud definition" in criminal court as far as I remember so it might be more clear cut.

  • drugmonkey says:

    More refuge than rehabilitation, but the East Coast BSD’s statements were similar to Nurse’s and carried much weight. East Coast BSD came down under harassment charges from multiple female scientists a year later.

    Hadn't heard of this one but wow. bit of a twist at the end there. sleazers protecting sleazers.

  • Grumpy says:

    I dunno. Suppose one of your favorite talented and productive postdocs left your lab to start their own. Then a decade later you find out they cheated on several papers at their new place.

    what would you do?

    I'd probably be willing to chalk it up to psychological disorder/stress/etc. and take them back to work things out. Sure, there should be consequences but none should be permanent, at least in this case. The 3yr type funding bans that ORI imposes sounds about right to me for this sort of case.

  • smn says:

    >JL: "Personally, I would not trust his papers. But there are other people whose papers I don't trust even though they have not been officially found cheating."

    What's more tricky, there are quite a few people half of whose publications is half sloppy or half crappy or even quite "polished" but they still report many useful and true findings.

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