Falling down on the job.
JR sent this comment:
What do you think of these postdocs geting fingered for fabricating data? There was one at Penn a few weeks ago and here is another one from Dartmouth.
"To put 100% of the blame on the postdoc years after they have left the lab has reached a new low. You have to wonder if this is a modern interpretation of the good reference letter/bad reference letter where now if your former postdoc now independent PI is a threat to the mentor PI that you can now be exposed and have your career killed just as it starts to be productive. Just a thought."
Yes, especially since you bring it up and it's not mentioned in the article at all, I I am bothered about the lack of direct accountability for the PIs.
You have to admit, though, that some of that will rub off on the PIs indirectly.
And, it will also be bad for anyone who has worked in those labs since then.
I'm also not sure I think the punishment described in the article fits the crime.
I've probably said this before but I'll say it again. I think that anyone fabricating data is due to only three possible things:
1) mental defect or disease
2) pressure of the current scientific system
3) the arrogant conviction that no one will know the difference
I think this is a fundamental problem with the way the system is set up. Especially with big labs, the PI won't and usually can't micromanage. And maybe they shouldn't.
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.
In the case described in this article, it sounds like this guy is a great example of someone who wasn't trained properly in grad school about how to handle data processing. You don't pool data from experiments that were done differently. You don't amplify signals that are actually noise. And so on.
Or maybe he tried to fake it all. We'll never know for sure.
But this is a great example where everyone failed. The postdoc failed to seek advice. The PI failed to supervise. The reviewers - thesis committee? and/or journal? - failed to ask the right questions.
Weren't there any other pieces of evidence that seemed inconsistent with the interpretations? I find it hard to believe, if the research were really thorough, that there was nothing else that didn't match.
As usual, we're left wondering how many other pieces of published literature are equally wrong. Is this good for science? For the public that funds our work? No way.
Are we all afraid this could happen to us when we're PIs? You bet. What can you do?
1. Require that everyone keep a good notebook. Run a tight ship.
2. Ask to see the primary data for anything you, as PI, are going to publish. Although this could be a lot of work, I don't think it's unreasonable. In the future, I'd hope that all fields will shift toward always including all the primary data, instead of publishing only the very best hand-picked examples that suit the story.
3. Train people yourself when they first come in, and then let them loose when you're satisfied that they understand what's good scientific practice and what's not. Good labs already do this. Lots of labs do not.
4. Pay attention to the exceptions. Create an atmosphere where inconsistencies are valued instead of punished.
Any time you get a result you don't expect, that's telling you something. Often it's telling you your original hypothesis was wrong, or at least partly wrong.
Other times it says you have technical problems in your lab that are probably not affecting just this experiment, but others as well.
Try to have a lab where people feel comfortable sharing their problems instead of feeling pressured to hide them.
Try not to have a lab where the atmosphere is so miserable, that one spineless person (how common are they? are they more common in science than in the general population?) will do anything to get a paper, get a job, and get out.
I fear it's more common than anyone wants to admit, and it's only going to become more common if the system continues on as it is.