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Lab Sabotage: Some Scientists Will Do Anything to Get Ahead

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


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In the world of science, it’s publish or perish. Researchers who publish a greater number of papers in high-status journals are more likely then their colleagues to win tenure positions, research grants, and prestigious reputations. The competition is fierce enough to compel some scientists to cheat. Anyone who follows the blog Retraction Watch knows that scientists sometimes fudge numbers or plagiarize. Less frequently reported are the instances where a desperate scientist resorts to sabotage to take down his or her peers.

The Lab Rat Shuffle

Last week, police arrested Mohsen Hosseinkhani for allegedly exacting revenge upon his peers at Mount Sinai Medical Center. The 40-year-old man, upset about losing his fellowship at the hospital, allegedly ran off with $10,000-worth of hospital property, including stem cell cultures, antibodies, and other scientific materials last July. Before making off with the bounty, Hosseinkhani stopped to shuffle around some lab rats, mixing up control and test rats, apparently out of spite. Hosseinkhani returned to the hospital last week to nick some more pipettes and was taken into custody, as reported in the New York Post.

The Spray-Bottle Betrayal

In 2009, University of Michigan PhD student Heather Ames began suspecting that someone was tampering with her experiments. Swapped lids on cell cultures, extra antibodies in her western blots, and growth media that were literally drowning in alcohol finally drove Ames to set up two security cameras in the lab. A day later, Ames pulled her cell cultures out of the refrigerator and found that they had again been spiked with alcohol. She reviewed the video footage and watched as her labmate, a post-doctoral student named Vipul Bhrigu, removed his experiments from the refrigerator, then returned with a spray bottle of ethanol and rummaged through the refrigerator for 45 seconds[Video]. The camera couldn’t catch what Bhrigu was doing, but at the police station later on, Bhrigu confessed that he had been sabotaging Ames’ experiments for months. Bhrigu was ultimately barred from participating in federally-funded research for three years.

The Pilfered Pages

When biochemist Zhiwen Zhang tried to reproduce the work that earned him a paper in Science in 2004, he discovered that his lab notebooks had gone missing. In 2007, Zhang began receiving anonymous emails from a person who claimed that Zhang’s papers had been faked, and threatened to expose Zhang unless he was sent $4,000 overnight. “They will investigate you,” the email said, according to Science Magazine. “Pete will retract all your post-doctoral work. you lose job. … Texas will fire you before you tenure.” Zhang was never able to reproduce his seminal work—in part due to the missing notebooks—and had to retract two of his papers in November 2009.
 

Such shocking behaviors aren’t unique to science—they can occur in any competitive environment, wasting time and money and delaying progress. When sabotage occurs on institutional property, a college or university will typically prosecute according to its Code of Conduct. Unfortunately, researcher anecdotes seem to indicate that, for some reason, many instances of suspected sabotage never get reported in the first place.

 





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  1. 1. TheBugGeek 8:09 am 12/6/2011

    This is disheartening, and feels very counter-intuitive to me. Do these saboteurs forget why we do science in the first place?

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  2. 2. Postman1 10:28 pm 12/6/2011

    Sounds similar to some of the contents of the emails exposed in climategate and climategate 2.0. Of course, sault will say that climatologists would never do that.
    Move along folks, nothing new here.

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  3. 3. old dingo 7:53 am 12/9/2011

    This may be more common than many think. Perhaps the highest-graded doctoral student in a lab I know of was spiked by an Egyptian doctoral student. The hostility, lab sabotage and tension, and slimy viciousness led to that student withdrawing from his doctoral degree. Interestingly, no subsequent people in that lab have been able to replicate the Egyptians work. I pity the supervisor in this situation: there is no defence against intelligent and directed malice, and all the good attributes – decency, giving the benefit of the doubt, and showing cultural sensitivity left her defenceless.

    Just remember, science is done by people. The miracle of it is that our irrational and imperfect minds, driven by the needs and wants of a social creature can produce good science at all.

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  4. 4. Tony Ufopia 5:21 am 12/19/2011

    While I have come to accept and even expect a great deal of illiteracy on the internet it is still painful to find in the pages of SA a sentence such as “Researchers…are more likely THEN their colleagues…”
    A spellchecker can get you only so far, Sarah, and like so many other journalists these days, you may need some remedial English.
    (Note to those still clueless: It should be “than” instead of “then”)

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  5. 5. jgrosay 4:53 pm 02/5/2012

    An university teacher told us about a competitive examination for a chair in dermatology he was once engaged. There were just three candidates, and after not a lot of time in the competition, it was clear that one of the contenders was overwhelmingly better than the other two. It didn’t took a long time: the two sure losers reached an agreement, and they sabotaged the lantern the supposed winner was going to use in a presentation including slides…

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