Interactive Film on Misconduct Infiltrates 'The Lab'

Source: US Dept. of Health and Human Services

"This is you." Successful physiologist and lab leader. Graduate student who stumbles upon data faked by a postdoc. Research integrity officer at a university.

Are you hooked yet? It may not sound all that gripping, but a new interactive movie by the Office of Research Integrity, which handles cases of scientific misconduct, is unexpectedly captivating (and kept this reporter glued to her screen for longer than she'd care to admit). The film, called The Lab, offers up a case of misconduct that blows up in a university's face, leading to donors pulling tens of millions of dollars in gifts and other fallout.

Then, the fun begins. "This outcome can be avoided. It's up to you to figure out how," says the august, silver-haired narrator who appears to be a senior official at the university.

Remember those choose-your-own-adventure books from your childhood? The movie takes much the same format, presenting four characters: Kim Park, a promising fourth-year grad student who, at 25 years old, is on track to finish her Ph.D. early; Harkik Rao, a postdoc insecure about his own studies and how they stack up against others; Aaron Hutchins, the lab's principal investigator, who, like many senior scientists, is juggling a host of responsibilities and makes no secret of having a favorite postdoc; and Beth Ridgely, the university's research integrity officer. Viewers can click on any character to jump in to the story, making choices along the way.

Kim Park's may be the most attention-grabbing.

She's approached by the lab's star, a graduate student named Greg, who presents her with a paper accepted for publication (it looks suspiciously like a Nature paper) that includes some of her old data. He hadn't asked her permission to include the data or list her as a co-author and wants her to sign off on it without reading it. It doesn't help that Kim, the narrator shares, had a fling with Greg and wants to impress him. "You know, technically, you should read the proofs before you sign, but you just want to enjoy your coffee alone," intones the narrator. What do you do?

And so begins the adventure, during which Kim chooses whether to read the research paper, and when she discovers her data have been falsified, what to do about it. Approaching her mother at first seems helpful, but then crumbles when mom urges her not to say anything and risk losing a publication (along with berating her for not going to law school like her brother).

Approaching her lab leader Aaron Hutchins proves disastrous, as he doesn't take her concerns seriously and is openly skeptical. An undergraduate mentor is more sympathetic and presses her to approach the research integrity officer. "Be a leader, don't take the easy way out. ... Hang in there, kid," says the mentor, a Dr. Perkins (perhaps not-so-subtly reminding scientists of the value of solid mentorship).

The perspective of the other players focuses less on the misconduct case than on the stresses of science. As Hutchins, you're offered the choice of telling an exhausted and overworked postdoc to go home for the night, or requesting he stay. (Selecting the first option earns you a "good job" from the narrator.)

The movie doesn't present the most flattering view of science—at least, when you pick the options that lead to high pressure. "Is this a bad time for me to be pregnant? Is the baby interfering with your research?" asks Rao's wife during a tense phone call during which he suggests he's too busy to talk to her.

Be forewarned: Stepping into this adventure, you may be stuck there for some time.