Scientific Integrity and Ethics: A Dilemma

Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article and my most recent article to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!


Dear Dr. Clemmons: I am a Ph.D. who has just finished a teaching postdoc at a major research university in the South. My husband and I recently moved to the Northeast in order for me to start a new academic appointment at a teaching hospital. Since arriving here, I have been told that the principal investigator of my laboratory has been known to falsify data and has already made moves to "reconstruct" data from experiments that I performed for use in several grant applications. I would never condone this type of behavior and I am uncertain of what to do since I am new to the lab and, apparently, nothing has ever been done to correct this PI's behavior in the past. Can you tell me the best way out of this scientific quagmire? --NEW JOB, NEW PROBLEMS

Dear New Job, New Problems:

I am sorry to hear that the circumstances surrounding your new job are making your life difficult. Surely, you moved into this new position expecting that it would represent a wise move up the academic career ladder, but instead you find yourself in a very bad situation! Never fear ... although your current circumstances are certainly not enviable, you can survive this.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. What you describe is a very delicate, yet serious matter and one that you must handle both promptly and carefully. Keeping in mind that I am not a lawyer or expert in scientific misconduct--simply a person trying to steer you in the right direction--here is how I would suggest you proceed. ...

The first thing you need to do is to decide whether you want to file a formal complaint of data falsification against your new boss. It seems easy enough to say that you should turn him in to the authorities for his misdeeds, but we all know that there may be serious consequences if you chose to make an issue out of his behavior. So practically speaking, it comes down to you making a decision between doing what you consider to be morally right versus what is probably best for your career. The fact is that your PI decided to use your data dishonestly, but only you can decide if you can live with that.

If you do decide to go forward and submit a formal grievance against your boss, I recommend that you first seek out an individual that you trust at your institution--someone who can help you navigate through these murky waters. Many universities have ombudspersons that are obliged to maintain confidentiality. Alternatively, you might want to turn to another person that you trust within the department for advice. If you have limited options here, you might want to think twice (twice more, that is ...) about whether you should really go forward with these claims. Look at it this way: If you cannot realize initial independent support for your grievance, then you are really putting yourself out on a limb. When you find yourself in the hot seat--as you almost certainly will at some point--you will need all of the support you can get.

It may also help to find out if there have indeed been past claims of scientific fraud made against this researcher or others at the institution at which you work. If so, you'll want to know the outcome of any investigation that resulted from those claims. Having insight into how the institution has handled similar claims in the past will help you to determine how you might proceed. Is your claim likely to be supported? Or do previous circumstances suggest that the institution will rally around the PI and take sides against you? A good place to start digging for answers to these questions may be the office of scientific integrity, the ombudsman's office, or some similar office at the institution. Due to federal funding requirements, most institutions make this type of resource available to its students and staff.

You also need to make absolutely sure that you have kept meticulous records of all the experiments you've performed yourself or that have been performed by anyone working under your direction. If you haven't been the best record keeper up to this point, you should take the time to put all of your lab notes in order and begin doing a much better job going forward. Your lab notebooks will be the most effective buttress to your claims, particularly if you can follow increasingly standard practice in these intellectual property days and get each page of your notebook witnessed by other laboratory personnel.

Now, I am sure you are also thinking about the possible repercussions of turning the spotlight on your PI's academic dishonesty. As you know, whistleblowers are often discredited, or worse. (Another reason, by the way, for making sure your lab notebook is in very good shape is to help deflect any attempts to make counter claims.) An excellent article outlining the risks and benefits experienced by scientists who blew the whistle appeared in the 15 May 1995 issue of The Scientist. In this article, the author states, "veteran whistleblowers suggest that scientists who are tempted to bring matters of misconduct to light should think long and hard before taking that step." According to some scientists who have spoken out against scientific misconduct, the personal toll that it can take--including, as it might, posttraumatic stress disorder, family break-ups, and isolation from colleagues--is not worth the risk.

It is true that junior scientists bringing claims of scientific misconduct against more senior scientists often face an uphill battle, and you must consider this when deciding whether to go ahead with your own charges. On the positive side, most of the whistleblowers profiled by The Scientist say that given the choice, they would do it all over again. Yes, the personal cost was high, but the clear conscience was worth it.

If after much soul searching, you decide not to take any action against your PI, then that is your decision. However, as a scientist you certainly understand that integrity must be at the core of research. Without it, we cannot make adequate progress. More importantly, though, there will be no impetus to change what some say is the current system of retaliation against whistleblowers if honest people do nothing.

Having said that, I believe that you will be doing the right thing regardless of the decision that you make. Only your own internal compass can tell you whether or not the benefits of pursuing justice outweigh the potential consequences you will face.

You are in the midst of one of the toughest predicaments you may ever face in your career, and I wish you all the very best in tackling it.


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