Thursday, November 23, 2006

Moral compass.

I've been busy the last few weeks. I've been witnessing a lot of things that make me uncomfortable, not to mention feeling pressured to do things that deviate from my own personal moral North.

But in what order should I list them?

The person who seems to be massaging data, desperate to compete despite lacking the skills.

Right now it's only a suspicion, there's no way to prove it. Do I just wait and hope that the peer review system will catch it (not likely)? Sometimes I wish there were
an anonymous hotline for these things, like they have for sexual harrassment at some schools.

The person who admits to having published something a few years ago that now seems to be wrong. No intentions of correcting the mistake through retraction, corrigendum or future publication.

This happens so much I'm not even sure it's worth commenting on. But how much time has been wasted by groups who have tried to reproduce the erroneous results? Do we have any obligation to report these things when we find or know about them?

The person who sacrifices creativity to get funding. And then works on things totally unrelated to the grant.

Is this really a habit we want to continue? Pressuring imaginative scientists to shut off their imaginations, or sneak around to do what really seems interesting or important?

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At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Virologista said...

When you solve the 3rd one, do let us know! My PI routinely ignores what was written in grants. Partly because the process takes so long that things change by the time the money comes. He reasons that so long as there are papers to list in the progress reports it is OK...honestly I'm not even familiar with content of the grant I'm paid for from.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Rosie Redfield said...

Massaging data:

We're all tempted - resisting the temptation is easier if others keep raising their concerns. Like many other 'delicate' issues, it's often least embarassing for all if it's raised in a very matter-of-fact way, not as an accusation but as something we all struggle with. If you're junior to this person, or a peer, maybe you could just ask them to clarify the issues for you.

Correcting mistakes:

Working at the 'frontiers of science' as we do, we inevitably get many things wrong. It's usually not worth the trouble (to everyone) of formally retracting our errors unless the error is continuing to lead others astray. Even then it may be more effective to just send out emails explaining the problem. At a minimum it should be clarified in subsequent publications. But we can't enforce this on others unless we're an author on the publication.

Switching grant money to different projects:

Some of this is inevitable, because our goals change with our results, and because we get great new ideas after the grant is funded. But deliberately proposing to do work that won't be done is sleazy. The lies to the agency suggest that the person didn't feel capable of justifying what they really wanted to do.

Granting agencies could check up on this but I suspect they rarely do. If the new stuff is good science, grants panels are usually happy. If the new stuff is bad science, hopefully the lousy track record will reduce their chances next time around.

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Rosie,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

If I could figure out a sufficiently delicate way to ask this person to clarify, I would. For now I'm biding my time to see if I can find the right moment/phrasing.

Re: 'frontiers of science', I agree, but I realize now that my point was a slightly different one, that I'll blog about, probably at length, probably soon.

re: switching grant money, what I'm referring to is the sleazy kind. And I suspect it's actually much more widespread than people realize. At face value, it seems ridiculous- writing a grant is so much work, why would you take the time to write something you have no intention of actually doing?

But in practice, it does seem that sometimes the best scientists are the worst at justifying why their great Vision doesn't seem to fit with a granting agency's immediate concerns. I think it's sad that the scientists feel they need to do this, that they get away with it, and that the agencies don't realize they're funding things that very few scientists actually find interesting, and thus forcing scientists to censor themselves. I'm not convinced that forcing us to do research on, for example, some diseases rather than others, because they have more vocal or influential patient advocacy groups... is good for science.

At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is the Office of Research Integrity if all else fails and the "massaged" results are actually published. I don't think the ORI can do anything about falsified results that aren't officially published, so preliminary data for grants and stuff presented at conferences that isn't included in the abstracts can't be monitored. Maybe I am wrong, though.

In a lab of a friend of mine, the PI conveniently forgot a few controls, the inclusion of which would have shot down the hypothesis this PI was trying to sell in grants. It's not that the data analysis for the controls wasn't complete, they were quite intentionally left out. The PI got one grant through a private agency with the so far unpublished results, but the PI will soon publish a paper with the previously "forgotten" controls included in the data. This is because the PI was pressured into including the controls in the paper (but not the grant) because it was concerning everyone in the lab that these controls had been ommitted. I wonder if NIH grant reviewers will catch the differences between data presented in the RO1 this PI submitted that is up for review and the paper, once it is published? Probably not. This angers me, because someone is clearly manipulating the system, competing off other investigators who were more honest. In times of tight money, it makes the crime even more disgusting.


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