Tuesday, August 31, 2010

PIs, students, and academic misconduct

With the Marc Hauser misconduct situation making waves all over the blogosphere, and even at the NYT, academic fraud has been on my mind. Yesterday, DM reminded us about the collateral damage academic misconduct leaves in its wake, namely the careers of the blameless trainees. In a Science update on the 2006 case of Elizabeth Goodwin, who was a biologist at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison when she falsified data and was turned in by her students. Goodwin's punishment, in which she

...has agreed not to participate in federally funded research for 3 years and will pay $50,000 to the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the Justice Department press release.
Seems minor compared to what happened to her students. In doing the right and proper thing and blowing the whistle on their cheating and lying PI, the six students lost pretty much everything:
But the outcome for several students, who were told they had to essentially start over, was unenviable. One, Chantal Ly, had gone through 7 years of graduate school and was told that much of her work was not useable and that she had to start a new project for her Ph.D. (The reason wasn't necessarily because of falsified data but rather, Ly and the others thought, because Goodwin stuck by results that were questionable.) Along with two of the others, she quit graduate school. Allen moved to a school in Colorado. Just two students chose to stay at UW.
Ethics aside (where it seems obvious that turning in a cheater is the right thing to do), whistleblowing is really important in that it ends the cheating behavior ASAP, and stops the literature from being polluted with additional incorrect and falsified results. As noted in this 2006 article in Science, even retracted papers endure and pick up citations. I've noticed in my class last year that students will summarize and cite retracted papers in their coursework, unaware that the information contained is incorrect. From the outcomes in the Goodwin case, it seems that scientists expect trainees who become aware of misconduct to take one for the team, and give up their careers in favor of the benefit to science as a whole. This sucks. How can giving up on your desired career compare to 3 years of giving up Federal support and a $50k fine?

Whistleblowing is immensely risky as a student--there is such an imbalance of power, that the tendency is to assume sour grapes on the part of the student and not that the "proven" PI is cheating (maybe because outright fraud is so rare?). The case much be really, really strong for students to go forward. The easiest (and most self-serving) outcome is to switch groups as soon as possible for the student, before any taint or investigation occurs. Goodwin's students were really brave and really strong to go ahead and turn her in.

On the other hand, maintaining the meaning and value of a PhD degree is important as well. Clearly Goodwin's students can't just get degrees for time served, given that their mentor screwed them over and prevented them from actually doing scholarship. That said, the six students had enough scientific training to notice the inconsistencies and collect enough data to prove a case to the point that Goodwin did not contest the charges. That should count for something, right?

Marc Hauser was also turned in by trainees. He gets a year off from Harvard, and they get?


Hope said...

Clearly Goodwin's students can't just get degrees for time served….

So Goodwin’s students, who were good enough scientists to notice her shenanigans and collect data to prove their point, and on top of that believed in the integrity of science enough to turn their mentor in at great risk to themselves/their careers, get no PhD – they get to start over. But some so-so researcher at best, who can’t even write his own dissertation or put together a decent talk, will get a PhD because his advisor is going up for tenure and needs to graduate a student. And profs like FSP, among others, will defend this as the right thing to do because to proceed otherwise would unfairly penalize the advisor.

No, it’s pretty clear who the system is designed to protect, whose needs are front and center. But I’m sure someone will come along any minute now and explain to me how: 1) it really can’t be any other way; and 2) even tenured profs who think this is wrong are powerless to do anything about it.

And don’t even get me started again on the “meaning and value of a PhD”….

GMP said...

Hope, do you perhaps have concrete suggestions as to how the situation is to be corrected?

Dr.Girlfriend said...

As Hope already pointed out, these students have done much more than simply serve time.

A graduate committee might have to dig deeper into the data beyond the dissertations, and perhaps even demand parts be replicated. However, I fail to see how all their work is unsalvageable. Surrogate PIs would have to work harder to house and mentor theses students, and the graduate committee would need to be more as auxiliary mentors.

Grad school should never be all about one student one mentor, and I find it unacceptable that the department could not go the extra mile for senior students would sacrificed so much in the name of professional integrity. Their primary mentor failed them, and now their department is failing them!

prodigal academic said...

Personally, I agree with Hope and Dr. G that (at least for the case of Chantal Ly, the student who had already done 7 years towards a PhD), the department should have helped her salvage what she could, and help her finish out in a year or two. After 7 years, a student should be productive enough to make very fast progress on a project.

I don't know how far along the others were (if they were only a year or so along, it makes sense just to switch groups), but I see this just like a tenure denial in a way. At PhD U, a prof was denied tenure, and his students were then picked up and mentored by advisors doing related research so they weren't completely screwed. I don't know why UW didn't do this for Goodwin's students. It makes me sick to think about how screwed the students were for doing what we as academics all told them is the right thing to do.

GMP said...

Personally, I agree with Hope and Dr. G that (at least for the case of Chantal Ly, the student who had already done 7 years towards a PhD), the department should have helped her salvage what she could, and help her finish out in a year or two. After 7 years, a student should be productive enough to make very fast progress on a project.

It looks like the university tried to help some (maybe not enough), but the student (or more than one, it seems?) was sick of it that simply wanted nothing to do with them any more. 7 years on a PhD is a really long time (at least in my field) even if you are in a supportive group with an awesome mentor who is not a fradulent ass. I kind of understand realizing that it's been 7 years, and now you have to put in another 1 or 2 when you are really sick of the place (a close friend was in this situation, although no fraud was involved, just complete lack of mentoring).
When you think of it, even with a PhD, her record is likely forever blemished (even though she didn't do anything wrong; sins of the fathers...) Maybe the student just did what's best for her sanity.

I don't know how long an average PhD is in genetics, but I would hope someone other than the PI would be obligated tp check on the student in year 3 or 4 to see if they are moving along..? At GMP Uni, we have two rite-of-passage stops (early year 2 and years 3-4) where faculty other than the PI are involved.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I feel terrible for these students that they will be forever google-able for what their PI did.

Looks like Goodwin is now the Senior Manager of Scientific Communications at Sepracor, Inc. Wonder how that's working out.

Mary Allen said...

Great analysis of the situation. I am the Allen mentioned in the article. It's really nice to see that others notice the unfairness of the situation. That being said, I have thought for years about what could be done to prevent future situations.

1) Students should be taught to be open with there committee, no matter what there P.I. has said. The University I am now at has a time during every committee meeting where the P.I. leaves the room.
2) Students should be able to disagree with their mentors. Disagreement should be encouraged, it means students are thinking!
3) It would be great if every student had two mentors instead of one. It's probably not possible but that is how I am going to do my post-doc.

For PIs
1) Instruct all PIs on the ability to listen, and detect a lack of scintific reasoning from students within the department. Don't assume it is becuase the student is stupid!
2) Don't always blame the student if there Ph.D. seems to be taking forever. Sometimes, the P.I. is forcing a non-productive direction.

For both
1) Never get emotionally attached to a scientific theory and always be able to let your pet idea go if it has too little support.

P.S. I'm graduating next month. That means of the six students that were originally in this lab, three quite with masters degrees (a 7th year, a 6th year, and a 3rd year when lab shut down), two will be graduating (5th year, 4th year when lab shut down) in their 8th year of graduate school. And one other (4th year) is still in grad school and will probably graduate in her 9th year.

The loss of years of peoples lives is scary.

Mary Allen said...

BTW, Dr. Girlfriend,
My committee said I could have salvaged some of my data, but I would have to work to publish it on my own, and Dr. Goodwin's name would have to be on it, which would tarnish the paper even if the data was good. I decided it wasn't worth the work.

However, most of the graduate students did not have enough to publish, and therefore their committees told them not to pursue the work done in the lab. Some of the work had been built on shaky data, and therefore had issues all along.

prodigal academic said...

Mary Allen, thank you for your comments and updates. Here at Prodigal U, there is much more supervision by the committee than there was at PhD U, and it is so much better for the students! PIs get called on students who aren't making good progress both towards publications and towards their degrees. In addition to the extra degree of oversight, every student graduates with at least 3 faculty members who know them and their work well (rather than read up on it right before the PhD defense). If I had lucked into a bad situation at PhD U, I would have been left out to dry or to sort it out myself (like unfortunately you and your fellow students were at UW). This is such an important issue to address, because I would never, ever have known to look for such a practice as an incoming student.

I am sorry that so much of your and your labmates' time was wasted by Dr. Goodwin. I hope you know that many people admire you and your labmates for having the courage of your convictions, even at great personal cost. Congratulations on your degree! I wish you best of luck in getting to the next step in your career.

Dr.Girlfriend said...

Mary Allen,

Thank you for your insight, and I truly admire your courage and how you have made good of a bad situation.

I really like the idea of the PI leaving the room. My PI was my biggest ally, and that worked to my advantage. However, she did have a tendency to jump in a defend my data for me before I had a chance to articulate a response. In a way we were both being examined because my PI was going up for tenure!

Technically I did have two mentors. In our school a untenured professor was not permitted to be the official mentor (is this common practice?), even through she functioned as such. Had she not gotten tenure I would have been protected. I do not believe it would be too much ask this be extended to all students.

Hope said...

@Mary Allen: I hope you know that many people admire you and your labmates for having the courage of your convictions, even at great personal cost. Congratulations on your degree! I wish you best of luck in getting to the next step in your career.

I second that!

Mary Allen said...

In case anyone was wondering Goodwin was sentenced today: two years probation and $100,500 in fines. I'm really glad she didn't get jail time. I actually liked her a lot.

Anonymous said...

You case was discussed in our Biomed Ethics and Law Class tonight. I was very sad to here what happened to you. I think that your University should have done more to help the students. The professor made the mistake, not you. I run the Graduate Association for our major and am trying to see if we can have a policy for this type of situation.