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Faith in rehabilitation (but not in official channels): how unethical behavior in science goes unreported.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Can a scientist who has behaved unethically be rehabilitated and reintegrated as a productive member of the scientific community? Or is your first ethical blunder grounds for permanent expulsion from the community?

In practice, this isn’t just a question about the person who commits the ethical violation. It’s also a question about what other scientists in the community can stomach in dealing with the offenders — especially when the offender turns out to be a close colleague or a trainee.

In the case of a hard line — one ethical strike and you’re out — what kind of decision does this place on the scientific mentor who discovers that his or her graduate student or postdoc has crossed an ethical line? Faced with someone you judge to have talent and promise, someone you think could contribute to the scientific endeavor, someone whose behavior you are convinced was the result of a moment of bad judgment rather than evil intent or an irredeemably flawed character, what do you do?

Do you hand the matter on to university administrators or federal funders (who don’t know your trainee, might not recognize or value his or her promise, might not be able to judge just how out of character this ethical misstep really was) and let them mete out punishment? Or, do you try to address the transgression yourself, as a mentor, addressing the actual circumstances of the ethical blunder, the other options your trainee should have recognized as better ones to pursue, and the kind of harm this bad decision could bring to the trainee and to other members of the scientific community?

Clearly, there are downsides to either of these options.

One problem with handling an ethical transgression privately is that it’s hard to be sure it has really been handled in a lasting way. Given the persistent patterns of escalating misbehavior that often come to light when big frauds are exposed, it’s hard not to wonder whether scientific mentors were aware, and perhaps even intervening in ways they hoped would be effective.

It’s the building over time of ethical violations that is concerning. Is such an escalation the result of a hands-off (and eyes-off) policy from mentors and collaborators? Could intervention earlier in the game have stopped the pattern of infractions and led the researcher to cultivate more honest patterns of scientific behavior? Or is being caught by a mentor or collaborator who admonishes you privately and warns that he or she will keep an eye on you almost as good as getting away with it — an outcome with no real penalties and no paper-trail that other members of the scientific community might access?

It’s even possible that some of these interventions might happen at an institutional level — the department or the university becomes aware of ethical violations and deals with them “internally” without involving “the authorities” (who, in such cases, are usually federal funding agencies). I dare say that the feds would be pretty unhappy about being kept out of the loop if the ethical violations in question occur in research supported by federal funding. But if the presumption is that getting the feds involved raises the available penalties to the draconian, it is understandable that departments and universities might want to try to address the ethical missteps while still protecting the investment they have made in a promising young researcher.

Of course, the rest of the scientific community has relevant interests here. These include an interest in being able to trust that other scientists present honest results to the community, whether in journal articles, conference presentations, grant applications, or private communications. Arguably, they also include an interest in having other members of the community expose dishonesty when they detect it. Managing an ethical infraction privately is problematic if it leaves the scientific community with misleading literature that isn’t corrected or retracted (for example).

It’s also problematic if it leaves someone with a habit of cheating in the community, presumed by all but a few of the community’s members to have a good record of integrity.

But I’m inclined to think that the impulse to deal with science’s youthful offenders privately is a response to the fear that handing them over to federal authorities has a high likelihood of ending their scientific careers forever. There is a fear that a first offense will be punished with the career equivalent of the death penalty.

As it happens, administrative sanctions imposed by Office of Research Integrity are hardly ever permanent removal. Findings of scientific misconduct are much more likely to be punished with exclusion from federal funding for three years, or five years, or ten years. Still, in an extremely competitive environment, with multitudes of scientists competing for scarce grant dollars and permanent jobs, even a three year disbarment may be enough to seriously derail a scientific career. The mentor making the call about whether to report a trainee’s unethical behavior may judge the likely fallout as enough to end the trainee’s career.

Permanent expulsion or a slap on the wrist is not much of a range of penalties. And, neither of these options really addresses the question of whether rehabilitation is possible and in the best interests of both the individual and the scientific community.

If no errors in judgment are tolerated, people will do anything to conceal such errors. Mentors who are trying to be humane may become accomplices in the concealment. The conversations about how to make better judgments may not happen because people worry that their hypothetical situations will be scrutinized for clues about actual screw-ups.

None of this is to say that ethical violations should be without serious consequences — they shouldn’t. But this need not preclude the possibility that people can learn from their mistakes. Violators may have to meet a heavy burden to demonstrate that they have learned from their mistakes. Indeed, it is possible they may never fully regain the trust of their fellow researchers (who may go forward reading their papers and grant proposals with heightened skepticism in light of their past wrongdoing).

However, it seems perverse for the scientific community to adopt a stance that rehabilitation is impossible when so many of its members seem motivated to avoid official channels for dealing with misconduct precisely because they feel rehabilitation is possible. If the official penalty structure denies the possibility of rehabilitation, those scientists who believe in rehabilitation will take matters into their own hands. To the extent that this may exacerbate the problem, it might be good if paths to rehabilitation were given more prominence in official responses to misconduct.

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This post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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