Cheaters

August 28, 2007

Writedit has been cataloging the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) findings of scientific/research misconduct, as well as the odd retraction or two.

Young Female Scientist has a good take on the usual “the now-departed postdoc did it” issue including a set of instructions on how to not be a faker-facilitating PI. Go read it.

Two essential points.

First, many good PIs are deathly afraid of being victimized by cheaters in their lab operating without their knowledge. The usual finding of “the postdoc/grad student/tech did it” underlines this paranoia.

Second, readers of ORI findings who are familiar with labs in which suspicious data are common wonder a LOT about the complicity of the PI in such cases. The first comment to the Young Female Scientist post explores this.

8 Responses to “Cheaters”

  1. whimple Says:

    “First, many good PIs are deathly afraid of being victimized by cheaters in their lab operating without their knowledge.”

    Really? I thought the good PIs, the ones heavily involved and invested in the daily primary data generation with significant oversight and mentoring would have relatively little to worry about. Is this just naivete on my part?

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    The scenarios are likely many and varied. As you say and as YoungFemaleScientist discussed, being an involved PI helps a lot. The scenario that concerns me, professionally, is the question of how to grow one’s lab’s approaches beyond that with which I am personally expert. No matter how broad one’s training, there will always be potential contributions to one’s science that can be made by a good postdoc who is expert in something new. Collaborations with a different field. Yes? So it means for the lab to develop a PI is motivated to start overseeing and taking responsibility for experiments s/he may not completely understand. It is one thing to have an understanding of what the technique and results mean, and other thing to be expert enough to catch all types of fraud- and as we’ve seen the real cheaters can put one past the supposedly “expert” PI, going by the ORI findings, anyway.

    Some would say “well then don’t engage in such collaborations or take on such postdocs”. I disagree because in the best-case scenario a lot of great and synergistic science can result. The frauds are likely a (very small?) minority of the cases. So it is worth some degree of risk.

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  3. PhysioProf Says:

    “As you say and as YoungFemaleScientist discussed, being an involved PI helps a lot.”

    I don’t know how familiar you are with YFS’s blog, but she has a consistent tendency to externalize all of her complaints and problems. Everything that causes her dissatisfaction or impedes her progress is the fault of someone else: her PI, her labmates, the “system”.

    The following excerpt from her post on fraud represents a gross misunderstanding of reality:

    “In some ways I think this is an example of how, as a postdoc, you’re essentially a PI with most of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. You’re frequently on your own, but they get to claim they’re training you. You’re basically doing everything yourself, but they get to be senior author on your paper and put your work in their grants. Etc. etc.

    So it seems consistent that you get blamed for anything that goes wrong, even though the PI was supposedly in charge. They get all the credit, but never any blame.”

    Maybe her PI is an asshole; I have no idea. But her analysis is just patently false as a general matter.

    Post-docs *always* overestimate their intellectual contributions to the work they do relative to the PI. And they *always* underestimate the importance of what the PI contributes, intellectually and otherwise.

    I did this when I was a post-doc, and I’m sure you did, too. It is a natural delusion, given the nature of the mentor/post-doc relationship, and it *can* be a productive one, if the post-doc uses it as a motivation to achieve independence. Only once I became a PI did I become aware of this delusion. YFS is still in its thrall.

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  4. ex-PI Says:

    EX-PI comments:

    Advice to PI’s- (1)cultivate the knowledge within the lab that you will always expect to review the primary data (even if you just get it compiled and then skim it)
    (2) Have everyone in the lab expect that you expect to be able to review notebooks without prior notice.
    i.e. reduce opportunity

    Advice to post-docs and grad students: always ask to see the final submitted paper– with good figures- not lousy xerox copies. You don’t want to contribute your good data and have the mss spoiled (and deep-sixed) by someone less ethical– whatever their rank.

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  5. drugmonkey Says:

    PhysioProf: I agree that YoungFemaleScientist tends to argue from the limitation of being a trainee and never (yet) a PI :-)! And yes, she tends to blog about the limitations of others and external factors which hold her back. But let us recall our own experiences, those of our friends and colleagues-in-training, eh? She expresses some common complaints and situations from the postdoc perspective quite well. I for one find it useful in thinking about my perspective with my postdocs as a PI. And I find some of these things, like the distant-PI ring true enough that it is an error to dismiss it as patently false.

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  6. PhysioProf Says:

    Absolutely. Just to be clear, I am not doubting that YFS and some other trainees do indeed experience shitty PI behavior. My point is that there are intrinsic dynamics of even the best mentor-trainee relationship that distort the trainee’s perceptions.

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  7. drugmonkey Says:

    Ex-PI sez:“Advice to PI’s- (1)cultivate the knowledge within the lab that you will always expect to review the primary data
    (2) Have everyone in the lab expect that you expect to be able to review notebooks without prior notice.i.e. reduce opportunity”

    Yeah. Hmm. Sounds pretty simple right? The thing is that I’m familiar with a trainee perspective that thinks that this sort of thing is unbelievably invasive, professionally. That it demonstrates a lack of collegiality and respect. I can see that. Somewhat.

    This also taps into complicated ownership-of-science things between PI and postdoc. I’ve seen a pretty bad-case scenario in which the postdoc was a complete paranoid- not that there was any faking going on or anything that I know of. Just that the postdoc was fiercely protective of “his” data (come to think of it I know more than one of these). In such a situation there is no default reason to be micromanaging. As long as there is no fraud, the work gets done well and published and the eventual contributing data is available to the coauthors, well, no harm done. Not that I could put up with a paranoid myself, but it could happen.

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  8. PhysioProf Says:

    “The thing is that I’m familiar with a trainee perspective that thinks that this sort of thing is unbelievably invasive, professionally. That it demonstrates a lack of collegiality and respect.”

    A post-doc like that would last about one day in my lab. The people in my lab know that I am a junkie and data is my drug, and they know that one of their responsibilities is to keep me supplied with plenty of good shit.

    When I was a post-doc I was always so excited about fresh new data that I always went running to the PI to show it to him and discuss it. He was a data junkie just like me, so we always enjoyed that together. To continue the metaphor, it was like sharing a nice doobie.

    All this “my data” crap is, frankly, disgusting to me. Any post-doc who has that attitude is necessarily so delusional about how science actually gets done, that it is unlikely that someone like that is ever going to be a successful PI.

    “As long as there is no fraud, the work gets done well and published and the eventual contributing data is available to the coauthors, well, no harm done.”

    I disagree strenuously. There are almost certainly both pitfalls *and* opportunities hidden in the data that can only be revealed through the intense process of PI and trainee getting intimate with primary data together.

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