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Do permanent records of scientific misconduct findings interfere with rehabilitation?

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


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We’ve been discussing how the scientific community deals with cheaters in its midst and the question of whether scientists view rehabilitation as a live option. Connected to the question of rehabilitation is the question of whether an official finding of scientific misconduct leaves a permanent mark that makes it practically impossible for someone to function within the scientific community — not because the person who has committed the conduct is unable to straighten up and fly right, but because others in the scientific community will no longer accept that person in the scientific knowledge-building endeavor, no matter what their behavior.

A version of this worry is at the center of an editorial by Richard Gallagher that appeared in The Scientist five years ago. In it, Gallagher argued that the Office of Research Integrity should not include findings of scientific misconduct in publications that are archived online, and that traces of such findings that persist after the period of debarment from federal funding has ended are unjust. Gallagher wrote:

For the sake of fairness, these sentences must be implemented precisely as intended. This means that at the end of the exclusion period, researchers should be able to participate again as full members of the scientific community. But they can’t.

Misconduct findings against a researcher appear on the Web–indeed, in multiple places on the Web. And the omnipresence of the Web search means that reprimands are being dragged up again and again and again. However minor the misdemeanor, the researcher’s reputation is permanently tarnished, and his or her career is invariably ruined, just as surely as if the punishment were a lifetime ban.

Both the NIH Guide and The Federal Register publish findings of scientific misconduct, and are archived online. As long as this continues, the problem will persist. The director of the division of investigative oversight at ORI has stated his regret at the “collateral damage” caused by the policy (see page 32). But this is not collateral damage; it is a serious miscarriage of justice against researchers and a stain on the integrity of the system, and therefore of science.

It reminds me of the system present in US prisons, in which even after “serving their time,” prisoners will still have trouble finding work because of their criminal records. But is it fair to compare felons to scientists who have, for instance, fudged their affiliations on a grant application when they were young and naïve?

It’s worth noting that the ORI website seems currently to present information for misconduct cases where scientists haven’t yet “served out their sentences”, featuring the statement:

This page contains cases in which administrative actions were imposed due to findings of research misconduct. The list only includes those who CURRENTLY have an imposed administrative actions against them. It does NOT include the names of individuals whose administrative actions periods have expired.

In the interaction between scientists who have been found to have committed scientific misconduct and the larger scientific community, we encounter the tension between the rights of the individual scientist and the rights of the scientific community. This extends to the question of the magnitude of a particular instance of misconduct, or of whether it was premeditated or merely sloppy, or of whether the offender was young and naïve or old enough to know better. An oversight or mistake in judgment that may strike the individual scientist making it as no big deal (at least at the time) can have significant consequences for the scientific community in terms of time wasted (e.g., trying to reproduce reported results) and damaged trust.

The damaged trust is not a minor thing. Given that the scientific knowledge-building enterprise relies on conditions where scientists can trust their fellow scientists to make honest reports (whether in the literature, in grant proposals, or in less formal scientific communications), discovering a fellow scientist whose relationship with the truth is more casual is a very big deal. Flagging liars is like tagging a faulty measuring device. It doesn’t mean you throw them out, but you do need to go to some lengths to reestablish their reliability.

To the extent that an individual scientist is committed to the shared project of building a reliable body of scientific knowledge, he or she ought to understand that after a breach, one is not entitled to a full restoration of the community’s trust. Rather, that trust must be earned back. One step in earning back trust is to acknowledge the harm the community suffered (or at least risked) from the dishonesty. Admitting that you blew it, that you are sorry, and that others have a right to be upset about it, are all necessary preliminaries to making a credible claim that you won’t make the same mistake again.

On the other hand, protesting that your screw-ups really weren’t important, or that your enemies have blown them out of proportion, might be an indication that you still don’t really get why your scientific colleagues are unhappy about your behavior. In such a circumstance, although you may have regained your eligibility to receive federal grant money, you may still have some work left to do to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy member of the scientific community.

It’s true that scientific training seems to go on forever, but that shouldn’t mean that early career scientists are infantilized. They are, by and large, legal adults, and they ought to be striving to make decisions as adults — which means considering the potential effects of their actions and accepting the consequences of them. I’m disinclined, therefore, to view ORI judgments of scientific misconduct as akin to juvenile criminal records that are truly expunged to reflect the transient nature of the youthful offender’s transgressions. Scientists ought to have better judgment than fifteen-year-olds. Occasionally they don’t. If they want to stay a part of the scientific community that their bad choices may have harmed, they have to be prepared to make real restitution. This may include having to meet a higher burden of proof to make up for having misled one’s fellow scientists at some earlier point in time. It may be a pain, but it’s not impossible.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that early career lapses in judgment ought not to be buried precisely because public knowledge of the problem gives the scientific community some responsibility for providing guidance to the promising young scientist who messed up. Acknowledging your mistakes sets up a context in which it may be easier to ask other folks for help in avoiding similar mistakes in the future. (Ideally, scientists would be able to ask each other for such advice as a matter of course, but there are plenty of instances where it feels like asking a question would be exposing a weakness — something that can feel very dangerous, especially to an early career scientist.)

Besides, there’s a practical difficulty in burying the pixel trail of a scientist’s misconduct. It’s almost always the case that other members of the scientific community are involved in alleging, detecting, investigating, or adjudicating. They know something is up. Keeping the official findings secret leaves the other concerned members of the scientific community hanging, unsure whether the ORI has done anything about the allegations (which can breed suspicion that scientists are getting away with misconduct left and right). It can also make the rumor mill seem preferable to a total lack of information on scientific colleagues prone to dishonesty toward other scientists.

Given the amount of information available online, it’s unlikely that scientists who have been caught in misconduct can fly completely under the radar. But even before the internet, there was no guarantee such a secret would stay secret. Searchable online information imposes a certain level of transparency. But if this is transparency following upon actions that deceived one’s scientific community, it might be the start of effective remediation. Admitting that you have broken trust may be the first real step in earning that trust back.

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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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  1. 1. KenPimple 10:22 am 06/30/2014

    This is an excellent essay that makes a powerful argument. However, it focuses on the individual actor who is found to have committed research misconduct. In some cases misconduct is abetted, perhaps even fostered, by the specific research context. I have no doubt that in some cases the one found guilty is, in fact, less guilty than one or more other actors who are not so found. This is not central to the point of this essay, but perhaps you could address what one might call co-guilt in a future post.

    Link to this

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