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Dealing With Dishonesty

So, we’ve been talking here since yesterday about what looks like large-scale fraud, but there’s small-scale stuff that goes on inside various labs (often in academia, which is where people like this are supposed to wash out). Many readers will have encountered, in their grad school days, the person whose reactions won’t quite reproduce, who comes in while you’re not around and “borrows” your reagents, and who can’t quite locate that key procedure when it’s time to look at it closely. (And yes, I’ve had dealings with members of this tribe before, and they’re no fun at all).
Here’s a reminiscence from a professor at Nebraska of how he dealt with someone like this, and his technique may be something that others have tried (or been tempted to). It worked, though. This is the flip side of the laboratory sabotage discussed here and here, used for good instead of for evil. Are such methods justified? Used carefully, and in extreme cases, I’d say yes. Thoughts?

32 comments on “Dealing With Dishonesty”

  1. Kevin says:

    One hears lots of stories like this. My son started research at his college as a sophomore and was assigned to make a batch of a polymer developed by a departed graduate student. It took all semester and a rewrite of the method to get it to work. Then a bunch of changes to get the yields up to what was claimed.
    Similarly, I’ve seen academic publications where the claims contradict the rest of the literature and even ASTM standard methods. Normally these come from journals far afield from where the information is known. It’s sad but then again, it’s human nature it seems… No one should expect scientists to be immune.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I know entire labs that would cease operation if all the lazy people were removed.

  3. D Sock says:

    If I look back at how lazy most professor’s were at my school, I’d have to say minor fraud is systemic and even encouraged. Students don’t get their mandatory pat on the head and food wafer if they don’t obtain results heading in the direction the professor wants. My goodness going into the lab and checking things might interfere with their 2 hour lunches and 4 hour work days.
    Should a student fail to get the appropriate results they are faulted for bad technique. It highlights the Profs need for results at all costs to achieve grants. I know of massive fraud in at least two areas that went on for decades.
    The famous Prof was never taken to task. He was on all the review boards and grant boards after all. I wonder how many paper’s he rejected which criticized his work.
    There is absolutely no punishment for fibbing results (or killing your students in lab accidents.)
    Note that the real question is whether industry is more honest than academia and by how much.

  4. D Sock says:

    If I look back at how lazy most professor’s were at my school, I’d have to say minor fraud is systemic and even encouraged. Students don’t get their mandatory pat on the head and food wafer if they don’t obtain results heading in the direction the professor wants. My goodness going into the lab and checking things might interfere with their 2 hour lunches and 4 hour work days.
    Should a student fail to get the appropriate results they are faulted for bad technique. It highlights the Profs need for results at all costs to achieve grants. I know of massive fraud in at least two areas that went on for decades.
    The famous Prof was never taken to task. He was on all the review boards and grant boards after all. I wonder how many paper’s he rejected which criticized his work.
    There is absolutely no punishment for fibbing results (or killing your students in lab accidents.)
    Note that the real question is whether industry is more honest than academia and by how much.

  5. BioBritSD says:

    (disclaimer – although once a practicing chemist, I now work for a software company marketing E-Notebooks. But I think I can still separate my corporate hat from my professional one and give honest opinion)
    IMO academia has always been worse than industry for territoriality, poor record keeping, inflated (or invented) procedures etc. Some might come from laziness (“now, how might have I done that reaction 6 months ago I never quite got around to writing up” to pressure and culture (a trained monkey can get an 85% yield) to fraud. Not that there isn’t a lot of exceptions on either side.
    I have long believed that a partial (but incomplete) remedy would be for institutions to bring in electronic lab notebooks. The whole “herding cats” issues of funding, concerns about portability and a “I can make one myself, when I get around to it” feeling etc have limited their adoption in all but the most far-seeing institutions. But it would certainly help avoid both cases of laziness (my boss will be actually looking, so I really ought to document this now) to fraud (ooops, I can’t find the notebook with that information in [you know who you are TSRI])
    In the ideal situation, the institute would bring in a system and insist the researchers all use it – paid for out of overhead. Most don’t think they can be that dictatorial and don’t see the value. However, when TSRI realizes that they may never get a Nobel for Peter S due to the lingering stench of conveniently lost notebooks, perhaps attitudes will change.
    OK, off my hobby horse now!

  6. PharmaHeretic says:

    Here is a tasteless question or two-
    Isn’t using grad students and postdocs without decent pay or job security the real scam?
    Who cares about scientific integrity and truth when you treat those who do the real work like slaves?

  7. Tex says:

    Novartic just axed 1,960 in the US (Wall Street Journal).
    According to the ACS chemist unemployment is at 3%. No doubt other companies will sop up these people ASAP.
    Certainly new growth in the sector has absorbed those 300,000 laid off over the last ten years.
    I’m glad I chose Chemistry as a career. As one place goes bust, new opportunities open up instantly. That’s why the unemployment rate never goes above 3%.

  8. luysii says:

    Well, I tried to nip this in the bud at an elite institution, back in the day when I was a teaching assistant and caught a student obviously cheating, and wanted him thrown out of the course. But those running the course demurred and allowed the turkey to finish and start medical school. Hopefully he’s not been taking care of someone near and dear to you. For details see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/a-responsibility-you-didnt-know-you-had/

  9. Publus The Lesser says:

    Isn’t using grad students and postdocs without decent pay or job security the real scam?
    Oh, please. When I was a grad student, I was hardly a slave. The pay sucked, but I had far more freedom and time than I do now working in industry. The postdoc had less freedom, but was essential to building up my credentials. As far as the “real work” goes, me and the other students in my adviser’s group would have been lost without him. He may have directed us, but we learned a lot from him.

  10. David L says:

    I worked at a company that made polydimethylsiloxanes with various functional groups attached. Or polymer chemist was a lazy PhD. Finally to get product innovation moving along we hired an organic professor during the summers. This guy was good! One day he was complaining to me that his simple reaction did not work the night before. He said the only thing that could kill it is if water would have gotten into the reaction but standard procedures were more than enough to ensure good results. I suspected our PhD was spiking water in the reaction or reagents. My professor-friend did a similar procedure as the Nebraska professor (in reverse) and marked the reaction vessel and reagents. Sure enough, there was more volume the next day. Dr. PhD eventually was fired.

  11. Chemjobber says:

    According to the ACS chemist unemployment is at 3%.
    No. In 2010, the ACS salary survey showed member unemployment at 3.9% (for 2009), the highest measured in 20 years. In 2011, that number (for 2010) was at 3.8%.
    The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports chemist and material scientist unemployment at 4.5% at 2009 and 3.1% for 2010. Interestingly, BLS reported chemist and material scientist unemployment at 6.1% for 2011. ACS numbers for 2011 have yet to be reported.

  12. Student says:

    I take it you have seen the CNN.com cover page? Tt talks about massive cheating among MDs. Experiments can be double checked, lives can not.
    http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/13/health/prescription-for-cheating/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

  13. gippgig says:

    Relating to the comments in #5 – free open source electronic lab notebooks are readily available – just do an internet search for “open source” “lab notebook”.

  14. coprolite says:

    Derek-I know you didn’t include that link to the cornhusker’s anecdote to expose him to scrutiny, but he is a borderline illiterate and small-minded to boot. His methods of exposing the buffer thief are just as bad if not worse than what ‘N’ was doing by taking his solutions. Maybe if he had spent a little less time worrying about petty discrepancies he might be able to write a paragraph without so many (parentheses) and fragment sentences. What really kills me is that he thinks so highly of himself that he just had to share this amazing tale of cunning.

  15. AlphaGamma says:

    This reminds me of the way Bengu Sezen was caught- by giving her a substrate with an extra methyl group that she hadn’t been told about. The methyl had mysteriously vanished from the product…

  16. bad wolf says:

    Wow, so mister touchy ran a woman out of science because she dared to ask questions and use his buffers.
    This is an excellent example of a story from a guy where he is putting down someone else but he doesn’t realize it just makes himself look like a much bigger douche.

  17. Cascade says:

    I dont think that this guy has done anything wrong by sabotaging the experiment of his dishonest and lazy collegue. I would have done the same if I were in his position or his supervisors. No experiment that ‘N’ was doing can be important simply because its not reliable.

  18. Ricardo Rodriges says:

    So we have that she was a smoker, her breath smelled, she touched the arm of the senior chemist, she asked a lot of questions (thought this is the right thing to do when you first set a foot on a synthetic chemistry lab) and she took the buffer solutions from a colleague … crucifixion for such heinous crimes?

  19. Cellbio says:

    Methods justified? Not at all. Pathetic behavior. Rather than confront her and then sabotage her experiment knowingly, he should have taken very different action. Most generously, he could have made excess buffer and given her a supply of her own (hell he even boasts of making ECL reagents to save his lab money, how communal of you!). Most importantly, he could have developed skill in managing a co-worker, but of course, working well with others, from either end of this example’s spectrum, is not what academia is all about. This guys is perhaps worse than the young student he purposely sabotaged.

  20. Ginsberg says:

    The Cornhusker professor should have created Standard Operating Procedures. Problem solved. As for the reagents, he could have developed a system of keeping reagents in stock. Set a schedule and delegate. Don’t worry about the quality of the reagents. Establish quality control mechanisms.
    Most people who aspire to higher positions have little patience with helping others. That is why you see so many highly disorganized laboratories. No one teaches the PhD how to lead in the lab. Instead you get people who hold grudges and sabotage others. His P.I. was correct in criticizing his methods. He should have gone out the door with her.

  21. Kiru says:

    I’m surprised at all the defenses of a thief and liar here.

  22. Ricardo Rodriges says:

    Defence? No defence at all, the whole story is blown out of proportion, full stop. Sensible thing would have been to try to talk straight to the student (that is what she was, a young student), and not get into playing spy games, mostly because quite clearly he had a personal dislike of the student.
    The blog post from the individual in question reads as a note looking for sympathy and approval of his actions. Well, from my side, I think he got it wrong, in the way he treated her and on the set up.

  23. Anonymous says:

    “Imagine if she lied about little things like salt buffers what kind of data she might have fabricated later on,”
    I don’t know, she might even go so far as to sabotage another student’s experiments in order to destroy their career.
    Jumping from buffer theft to scientific fraud is just ludicrous and makes me question the author’s perspective.

  24. lt says:

    It’s quite bewildering that anyone would jump in to defend N. She lied repeatedly and directly and when politely confronted, simply continued to lie and steal. It was not a one-time incident but systematic.
    It is far, far, FAR too late to start approaching college students with “Did you know that it is wrong to steal and lie to peaople?”.
    It’s not her fault that she has a personality disorder but there’s no place for her in occupations where facts are relevant.

  25. johnnyboy says:

    What I’m surprised at is all the monday morning quarterbacking being done here (and over a rather trivial story, to boot). All we have is the professor’s side of the story, we’d need to have N’s story in order to form a reasonably informed opinion on the dispute. So your rush to pillory either N or the professor is all rather unseemly. A rather sad human trait, this hunger for judging others.

  26. Monday Morning Quarterback says:

    While I agree that we’re missing half the story here, what I find distasteful in what was presented is how a STUDENT was handled. “N” was allegedly dismissed over fears of fraud with only buffer theft as evidence. If the PI was worried about fraud she could have taken the responsibility to go over N’s work with a fine toothed comb and demanded an explanation for any irregularities. From there dismissal would be a reasonable option. If a PI won’t put the fear of God into a student when warrented, they don’t deserve the position.

  27. p says:

    I don’t see how you can go from stealing reagents to fraud. I know LOTS of folks in labs guilty of the former who wouldn’t dream of the latter.
    However, I don’t think that excuses the theft. If the prof’s story is accepted (and, yeah, it’s just one side of the story – all of our opinions may change with her side or the advisor’s side), the student had been given instructions on how to prepare the reagent and told not to use others. She absolutely doesn’t have the right to other people’s work.
    And short of a lab webcam, how else to catch her?
    What if he had simply mis-prepared the buffer? Would her failed experiment have been his fault?
    At the end of the day, no one in that story looks very good (either student or the advisor).

  28. Kiru says:

    Again… roughly half of this supposedly educated commentariat seems to have completely missed a polite question “are you still stealing reagents?”. If this really is the state of this industry, it makes it the single most depressing thing I’ve read on this blog.

  29. Monday Morning Quarterback says:

    What bothers me is the jump from “she lied about stealing buffer” to “she fabricated results”. There was no evidence to support fabrication. Claiming that because she was caught in one lie that everything she does is in question holds her to an inhuman standard. We’ve all told lies, many of them probably bigger whoppers than “no I didn’t steal your buffer”. That does not mean any of us fabricate results. Repeated lying does certainly raise suspicion, but acting on that suspicion without evidence is irresponsible and invariably leads to witch-hunts. If someone smells funny, remain vigilant and catch them in the act. Then you can undo the damage and string them up by whatever appendage is traditionally appropriate.
    Also, “roughly half of this supposedly educated commentariat seems to have completely missed a polite question “are you still stealing reagents?”” ignores the fact that you are taking the word of a stranger from the other side of the internet as gospel truth without any sort of solid evidence.

  30. newnickname says:

    @13 gippgig: Can someone recommend an open source e-notebook that really works and that they actually use? I’m tired of downloading demos and alpha-versions of stuff that just fades away and wastes a lot of my time.
    For document prep, TeX / LaTeX is 30+ years old and robust. Is there an open source lab notebook as good as that?
    Back on topic: I’ve seen plenty of dishonesty. I was in biotech! From the epigraph of “Bahramdipity and Nulltiple Scientific Discoveries”, Sci Eng Ethics, 2001, 7(1), 77:
    “Autoritaetsdusel ist der grosst Feind der Wahrheit.” (“The stupor of authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”) – Albert Einstein, 1901
    “He said that before there was biotech.” – Anon, 1997 (1901 was also prior to Bayh-Dole.)

  31. Kiru says:

    “”” Also, “roughly half of this supposedly educated commentariat seems to have completely missed a polite question “are you still stealing reagents?”” ignores the fact that you are taking the word of a stranger from the other side of the internet as gospel truth without any sort of solid evidence. “””
    This is just silly. This is the information we have, we don’t have any other information. We’ve been given no reason to question the information as presented.
    To sit in judgement of the facts as we know them, even if we only have one perspective, is FAR more reasonable than to invent an alternate narrative more-or-less out of whole cloth.

  32. Young Padawan says:

    Imagine the following:
    You suspect a coworker repeatedly taps into your wallet and some bills disappears. You confront him/her but everything is denied. You still have that feeling that your money keeps diminising, so you just pop some cheaply self-made fake bills into the wallet. Your coworker is arrested for fabricating money. What does that make you?
    IMHO: Stealing buffer is definitely not OK. But switching the reagent is a bit overly drastic, too and doesn’t really seem mature to me. What kind of communication culture is going on in that lab? What about a few repeated confrontations of that coworker? What about looking for some support by the boss, before taking it all into your own hands? And why not?: Just hide or lock away that **** buffer and see what happens. This actually might have had the same effect of said coworker just leaving, but without that stale aftertaste.

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