Character is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.
J. C. Watts
How would you deal if scientific misconduct happened in your lab, or the lab where you work? When scientists “cut corners”, fake data or experiments? How would you react? How should you react? It’s hard to know. These cases are rare and they likely affect your colleagues, or supervisors, or subordinates. There is personal history, there are shared experiences. And there is the difficulty of finding out what exactly happened. Whether it was a mix-up, a honest mistake, or fraud. As written regarding the fraud triangle in scientific misconduct, it’s not that researchers who fabricate or falsify data are evil. It’s more a mixture of the person and the situation. And from the situation there are strong pressures — sometimes — to “cut corners”: Pressure, Rationalization, and Opportunity.
To get an impression of what you can or should do in situations of scientific misconduct, have a look at the serious game “The Lab” by the Office of Research Integrity. Well, when I say serious game, I mean a simple “choose your own adventure” style game. But still, the acting is good — surprisingly good (and better than the PhD comics movie — sorry, Jorge, but watch and learn). There are some useful hints in the videos on how to handle specific conversations.
You can slip into the role of four different people:
- the research integrity officer
- a PhD student who discovers that data was manipulated
- the principal investigator
- a post-doc
And it’s an interesting ride. Sometimes a bit optimistic, especially when you consider what can happen to whistle-blowers (see, e.g., Couzin, 2006, and the followup questions by Ruhlen, 2006). Sure, the PhD student did suffer retaliation, but it worked out in the end, which is not a given. But still, given how rare but (potentially) devastating these situations are — it’s worthwhile to play through the situation in different perspectives. And yup, I just love how the ORI facilitates perspective change this way. Looking at it with the perspective of a EU research project I was working in (about reflection at work), there are other things they could have done, but still, good work. BTW, there’s another game called “The Research Clinic“. My guess is it goes more into clinical research, but I haven’t tried it out yet. Might also be interesting.
Anyway, have a look at “The Lab” (select “Play Full Version”, a misnomer, given that you can select how your character should behave), even if you — hopefully — never need to know how you have to act in such a case. It’s a bit like taking part in a first aid course, really. BTW, when was the last time you did take part in one. It might save the life of someone you love. But yup, I think it’s helpful, and it even provides some tips besides how to handle cases of research misconduct.
- Couzin, J. (2006). Truth and Consequences. Science, 313, 1222–1226.
- Ruhlen, R. L. (2006). What Happens to the Whistleblowers? Science, 314(5797), 251–252.