It matters not one whit to the ethics of data faking if you were correct

May 12, 2010

Something that arose in the comments after my last post on the Brodie affair was underlined in the newspaper report from 2007.

Oddly enough, Brodie’s conclusions were found to be correct and supported by later research, said UW professor Lawrence Corey, head of the UW’s virology division in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, in The Seattle Times. Brodie worked in Corey’s retrovirus laboratory.
“Did he set back crucial research? The answer is no,” Corey said in the Times article.

Corey, btw, was the substitute PI for one year of one of the Brodie NIH grants.
And it isn’t just this case either. This theme that the faked data supported conclusions that were correct anyway can be seen elsewhere. The Linda Buck laboratory retraction that PhysioProf described long ago featured this, as the author suspected of data fakery claimed to be working on replacement data that would prove he was right. There are several cases of errata and even retractions being followed up with replacement figures or papers showing the original purported data could be replicated.
I smell an implication in these situations that we are supposed to modulate our ire at the original data faking simply because the authors’ conclusions were supportable by later investigations.
Bah, I say. Bah.

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18 Responses to “It matters not one whit to the ethics of data faking if you were correct”

  1. queenrandom Says:

    I agree. It’s a sort of Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means ethics argument, isn’t it? “It’s ok to falsify data if you think you are right!” That’s a pretty bad message to send blossoming, impressionable young scientists.
    I mean, what if later data doesn’t support the original hypothesis? Then you’re up shit creek. And what’s to say someone who has faked data in the past isn’t cherry picking to the extreme to cover his/her ass? Is science a once a cheater always a cheater venue? I don’t know, but I lean towards thinking that someone who is comfortable with unethical behavior at one point in time will probably still be comfortable with it later.

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  2. Anonymous Says:

    “I agree. It’s a sort of Machiavellian ends-justify-the-means ethics argument, isn’t it? “It’s ok to falsify data if you think you are right!” That’s a pretty bad message to send blossoming, impressionable young scientists.”
    I don’t think that’s the message. It’s spin being applied liberally by those that remain behind to cover their own asses. And it’s bullshit. I can the doodes problem though, “Fuck, he faked data in figure 4…but 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 are OK. I don’t want to have to redo everything…so…”

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  3. chall Says:

    One of my old professors always used to say “it’s not the unbelievable data that is most likely to be fake, it’s the ‘run of the mill – right in line with the current most popular hypotheis’ since they/we don’t want to double check it as much”. And fake data is always fake data. and it is always wrong imho.

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  4. queenrandom Says:

    “I don’t think that’s the message. It’s spin being applied liberally”
    That may be the case, but the message intended isn’t always the message sent. I think it still does send a pretty poor message in regards to ethics even if all they’re trying to do is spin.

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  5. SurgPA Says:

    If you photoshop a picture of me in New Hampshire to make it look like I am on the beach in Hawaii, then pass it off as evidence that I vacationed in Hawaii, it is a fake. Independent corroboration that I’ve been to Hawaii might make it easier to sell the picture, but it doesn’t make it less a fake. What’s more, if I point out that the picture is a fake, why should I believe that a “replacement” photo you show me is not also faked? My ire is that you presented a faked photo as real and is unrelated to whether you correctly declared me to have vacationed in Hawaii.
    I’m not a research scientist, but it seems to me that once data has been shown to be deliberately faked, any subsequent work by the faker on that topic is tainted.

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  6. Pascale Says:

    Once lost, a reputation is the most difficult thing to regain.
    I’m not an HIV researcher, but if I were, I would not believe a damn thing Brodie ever published. His colleagues would be tainted in my mind as well (even after the liberal use of spin above).
    Don’t. Lie. About. Data. Period.

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  7. becca Says:

    What part of the brain has to be damaged to only consider outcome as part of the moral equation?
    Pascale, you are correct about the importance of truth and data, but the rest of what you’ve said is LAZY thinking. Where does the guilt by association stop?
    “I’m not a scientific researcher, but if I were, I would not believe a damn thing any HIV researcher ever published.” There’s enough denialism in this world, we don’t need more from scientists (no matter how righteously pissed they are).
    That’s the reason it’s worth spending any time/money on investigations of scientific fraud- to *have* exactly the breakdown we have for this case- ‘figure X is wrong, it shows this instead of that’. If it were enough to just write off everybody remotely associated with this as a cheater, life would be easier. But, in addition to creating a culture of fear-of-discovery-of-fraud and corresponding poor housekeeping, that wouldn’t tell us how to treat patients, would it?

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  8. Schlupp Says:

    It doesn’t matter for judging the perpetrator, but it does when it comes to judging the other authors: As SurgPA points out, the fact of having been in Hawaii makes the photoshoped beach pictures more plausible. Consequently, the co-authors can more easily be assumed to have been duped despite being reasonably careful. In the Schoen case, the coauthers were – rightly – criticized for not being more suspicious given that the “results” were so spectacular that they should have required better proof.

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  9. Eric Lund Says:

    Becca raises a valid point about how far the guilt by association goes, but since Dr. Brodie was a PI, the fallout is inevitable. Pascale is right to be suspicious of any other papers Brodie co-authored: we only know about the instances of cheating where he was caught, and we have no way of knowing whether there were other instances where he got away with it. But since Brodie was a PI, discounting his work means you effectively vaporize the publication record of his students and postdocs, against whom there is no evidence of cheating–it’s even possible that one of them blew the whistle in the first place. There aren’t any good solutions to this dilemma.

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  10. I totally agree with Schlupp and Eric. Brodie is still a lying ass, and all future and past Brodie papers are suspect. Any work building off of Brodie papers by coauthors is also suspect. That sucks, but is the reality. I wouldn’t impugn the whole careers of Brodie’s co-authors, but at the same time, I would be wary of work that built off of Brodie’s.
    As for co-author responsibility, I think this is a rougher question. In the Schon case, his co-authors surely should have noticed that he was publishing at a rate of 1 paper every 2 weeks, which is just physically impossible to do with new results. They didn’t ask, he didn’t tell. I blame them, since that pace (regardless of the likelihood of one person discovering physics-changing phenomenon so frequently) is suspicious.
    In cases like Brodie’s, I have a little more sympathy. I cannot do a lot of the experiments my collaborators do, so I have to trust their data (given that it “looks” ok and passes the smell test, as per Schon above). If a co-author faked something well, and it was in line with current understanding of the field, I have a hard time believing I could figure it out right away. That said, I would totally understand if people were a little suspicious of my work in that area, and that is yet another reason why faking it is so evil.

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  11. David Says:

    Monkey, my gut feeling as an ethical researcher is that you’re absolutely right. But there are two other scientists, both far better than me, who might disagree. Both Newton and Mendel faked data; both were subsequently shown to have the right theory anyways.

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  12. DrugMonkey Says:

    Independent corroboration that I’ve been to Hawaii might make it easier to sell the picture, but it doesn’t make it less a fake. What’s more, if I point out that the picture is a fake, why should I believe that a “replacement” photo you show me is not also faked? My ire is that you presented a faked photo as real and is unrelated to whether you correctly declared me to have vacationed in Hawaii.
    Part of the problem is that in academic science you get credited for figuring out where SurgPA went on vacation as well as for providing the evidence that proves SurgPA was in Hawaii and not Bora Bora. And for mapping on the routes and travel methods that SurgPA used to get to Hawaii. ..and a bunch of other stuff about objective reality that is not readily apparent (yet).
    This encompasses a whole lot more thinking, deducing, testing, proving, etc beyond snapping a single photograph.
    Now suppose our investigator was hot on the trail of SurgPA, had the routes mapped out, had tracked down the right island and the right beach, whipped out his camera and snapped off a whole bunch of pictures of SurgPA on the beach.
    Then back home, preparing the report come to find out each freaking picture has something wrong. SurgPA’s head was turned just enough to prevent identification. There was a glare off the wave. “Hey, where’d that huge guy come from who stepped in front of the camera??!!”
    etc.
    So our intrepid investigator writes it all up, provides all the other evidence and…decides to falsify the picture because s/he just didn’t manage to produce a real one.
    That’s the issue.
    Or was it SurgPA’s doppelganger who was followed so meticulously?
    Of course later on, somebody else turns up who DID manage to snap a photo of SurgPA on that Hawaiian beach on the day in question. The faker was *right*.

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  13. SurgPA Says:

    That almost makes it worse, right? Not to carry this analogy beyond its useful limits, but if Researcher has done all this background work, has the routes, copies of itineraries and will get credit for this, then the honorable thing to do is admit “here’s all my evidence that SurgPA was in Hawaii, and I believe/know he was there, but I don’t have the picture.” If you don’t have the integrity to do that, then aren’t we just photoshopping science?

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  14. zoubl Says:

    @#11, David, were Newton and Mendel funded by federal agencies? Not that NOT being funded makes faking data right, but it adds to the crime that public funds were somehow used for fabricating results.

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  15. Anonymous Says:

    zoubl,
    Your argument is the “Robin Hood” one. If Chinese manufactures who fake brand name products would give them away, is their crime of a lesser magnitude?

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  16. daedalus2u Says:

    I would say the faking of data did set back HIV research. To the extent that the fake results came first, it penalized who ever got the real results and diverted funding away from people doing and publishing real research.
    The most important part of a scientific paper is the data, not the conclusions. If the data is wrong, the paper needs to be retracted. It doesn’t matter what the conclusions are.
    If you have a hypothesis, you can publish it without faking data to make it seem correct.

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  17. Anonymous Says:

    This is a bit off topic, yet, it is about the misconduct of an academician and the unusual turn of events, where the culprit was caught, tried and punished for his crimes today, all within two years.
    http://www.courier-journal.com/article/20100517/NEWS0105/5170334/Ex-U+of+L+dean+Felner+sentenced+to+63+months+in+prison

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  18. EH Says:

    Everybody needs to look at the ALJ decision. ORI has lied in the Federal Register. How can they make-up stuff the Judge did not find. Example ORI #6 the Judge said good and Brodie never got to have his day in court.
    http://www.hhs.gov/dab/decisions/civildecisions/cr2056ok.pdf
    Looks like the ORI should be in HOT WATER for their own misconduct… ORI wants everybody else to look bad no matter what and the ALJ’s work for HHS. You the public need to be the Judge, raw deal???

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  19. [...] __ Related reading: Being later found to be right does not reduce your blame for faking it in the first place. [...]

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