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The immediate victims of the con would rather act as if the con never happened

Dorothy Bishop has the story about “a chemistry lab in CNRS-Université Sorbonne Paris Nord”:

More than 20 scientific articles from the lab of one principal investigator have been shown to contain recycled and doctored graphs and electron microscopy images. That is, results from different experiments that should have distinctive results are illustrated by identical figures, with changes made to the axis legends by copying and pasting numbers on top of previous numbers. . . . the problematic data are well-documented in a number of PubPeer comments on the articles (see links in Appendix 1 of this document).

The response by CNRS [Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique] to this case . . . was to request correction rather than retraction of what were described as “shortcomings and errors”, to accept the scientist’s account that there was no intentionality, despite clear evidence of a remarkable amount of manipulation and reuse of figures; a disciplinary sanction of exclusion from duties was imposed for just one month.

I’m not surprised. The sorts of people who will cheat on their research are likely to be the same sorts of people who will instigate lawsuits, start media campaigns, and attack in other ways. These are researchers who’ve already shown a lack of scruple and a willingness to risk their careers; in short, they’re loose cannons, scary people, so it can seem like the safest strategy to not try to upset them too much, not trap them into a corner where they’ll fight like trapped rats. I’m not speaking specifically of this CNRS researcher—I know nothing of the facts of this case beyond what’s reported in Bishop’s post—I’m just speaking to the mindset of the academic administrators who would just like the problem to go away so they can get on with their regular jobs.

But Bishop and her colleagues were annoyed. If even blatant examples of scientific misconduct cannot be handled straightforwardly, what does this say about the academic and scientific process more generally? Is science just a form of social media, where people can make any sort of claim and evidence doesn’t matter?

They write:

So what should happen when fraud is suspected? We propose that there should be a prompt investigation, with all results transparently reported. Where there are serious errors in the scientific record, then the research articles should immediately be retracted, any research funding used for fraudulent research should be returned to the funder, and the person responsible for the fraud should not be allowed to run a research lab or supervise students. The whistleblower should be protected from repercussions.

In practice, this seldom happens. Instead, we typically see, as in this case, prolonged and secret investigations by institutions, journals and/or funders. There is a strong bias to minimize the severity of malpractice, and to recommend that published work be “corrected” rather than retracted.

Bishop and her colleagues continue:

One can see why this happens. First, all of those concerned are reluctant to believe that researchers are dishonest, and are more willing to assume that the concerns have been exaggerated. It is easy to dismiss whistleblowers as deluded, overzealous or jealous of another’s success. Second, there are concerns about reputational risk to an institution if accounts of fraudulent research are publicised. And third, there is a genuine risk of litigation from those who are accused of data manipulation. So in practice, research misconduct tends to be played down.

But:

This failure to act effectively has serious consequences:

1. It gives credibility to fictitious results, slowing down the progress of science by encouraging others to pursue false leads. . . . [and] erroneous data pollutes the databases on which we depend.

2. Where the research has potential for clinical or commercial application, there can be direct damage to patients or businesses.

3. It allows those who are prepared to cheat to compete with other scientists to gain positions of influence, and so perpetuate further misconduct, while damaging the prospects of honest scientists who obtain less striking results.

4. It is particularly destructive when data manipulation involves the Principal Investigator of a lab. . . . CNRS has a mission to support research training: it is hard to see how this can be achieved if trainees are placed in a lab where misconduct occurs.

5. It wastes public money from research grants.

6. It damages public trust in science and trust between scientists.

7. It damages the reputation of the institutions, funders, journals and publishers associated with the fraudulent work.

8. Whistleblowers, who should be praised by their institution for doing the right thing, are often made to feel that they are somehow letting the side down by drawing attention to something unpleasant. . . .

What happened next?

It’s the usual bad stuff. They receive a series of stuffy bureaucratic responses, none of which address any of items 1 through 8 above, let alone the problem of the data which apparently have obviously been faked. Just disgusting.

But I’m not surprised. We’ve seen it many times before:

– The University of California’s unresponsive response when informed of research misconduct by their star sleep expert.

– The American Political Science Association refusing to retract an award given to an author for a book with plagiarized material, or even to retroactively have the award shared with the people whose material was copied without acknowledgment.

– The London Times never acknowledging the blatant and repeated plagiarism by its celebrity chess columnist.

– The American Statistical Association refusing to retract an award given to a professor who plagiarized multiple times, including from wikipedia (in an amusing case where he created negative value by introducing an error into the material he’d copied, so damn lazy that he couldn’t even be bothered to proofread his pasted material).

– Cornell University . . . ok they finally canned the pizzagate dude, but only after emitting some platitudes. Kind of amazing that they actually moved on that one.

– The Association for Psychological Science: this one’s personal for me, as they ran an article that flat-out lied about me and then refused to correct it just because, hey, they didn’t want to.

– Lots and lots of examples of people finding errors or fraud in published papers and journals refusing to run retractions or corrections or even to publish letters pointing out what went wrong.

Anyway, this is one more story.

What gets my goat

What really annoys me in these situations is how the institutions show loyalty to the people who did research misconduct. When researcher X works at or publishes with institution Y, and it turns out that X did something wrong, why does Y so often try to bury the problem and attack the messenger? Y should be mad at X; after all, it’s X who has leveraged the reputation of Y for his personal gain. I’d think that the leaders of Y would be really angry at X, even angrier than people from the outside. But it doesn’t happen that way. The immediate victims of the con would rather act as if the con never happened. Instead, they’re mad at the outsiders who showed them that they were being fooled. I’m sure that Dan Davies would have something to say about all this.

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