Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scientific Misconduct

The Genomic Repairman has a blog entry up asking about scientific misconduct. He found an instance of two journal articles from the same group that used an identical figure in a set of 2008 and 2010 reports. Is this scientific misconduct? If they didn't cite it, you betcha ... and even if they did cite it, they could be butting their heads up against copyright issues with the 2008 journal. Any way you cut it, if you can't be bothered to change things up, like oh I dunno redoing the experiment to generate a new figure, you deserve to be hoisted up by your own petard.

I have a similar tale as a graduate student, but this one didn't involve me stumbling across two publications of a science enemy. Instead, I came across the scientific misconduct of one of my departments professors.

I came across this misconduct early on in my journey as a graduate student. It was before my second year was completed and a friend and I were studying for our general exam. We would alternate between the building he worked in, the building I worked in, and the campus library. This day we were in his building and we had taken a break. I was in the hall looking at the lab posters and came across the work of Professor M. Professor M had several of their papers tacked to the board as well and I was leafing through them.

Something caught my eye.

I noticed that in two papers on the same subject, published back-to-back (but in different journals), looked awfully similar. In Manuscript A, there were several tables. In Manuscript B, there were several figures. I took note of it and went back to studying. Later that evening I went to the library and printed out the two manuscripts ... and began lining up the tables and figures.

They matched.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. I slept on it and then brought the evidence to my adviser the next morning. He was not pleased, but there was no denying it. This was a clear cut case of double publishing. My adviser said he'd take care of it, and took the evidence I collected. That was the last I heard of it. Now, there were several other instances of moral turpitude concerning Professor M, the combination of which forced him out of our department and university altogether. I'm not sure what role his double publishing played, and to be honest I have never looked for a retraction of either paper. I suppose I could go and check now (check back for an ETA). I don't know if Professor M rues the time spent at our university, but I do know what the immediate consequences of Professor M's actions were ...

Department Chair at a different university.

ETA: Both publications still exist in the literature, with neither ever being retracted.


soil mama said...

sometimes I think this kind of thing is similar to performance enhancing drugs in sports. it seems like many of the folks I know who have gotten to, or are striving for the top do some pretty questionable things that are just looked over. everyone knows it happens, but there rarely are consequences. whether it's double publishing, scooping proposal ideas, playing around a little too much with data, or even reckless lab techniques that overlook major flaws (like poor standard curves). I've witnessed enough during my PhD to really make me wonder if I had what it takes (or was willing to do what it takes) to get ahead in science.

Thomas Joseph said...

This dude was the same one who told me after my first lecture ... If you can't dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your BS.

I've seen a handful of people play fast and loose with science too, and while it was certainly discouraging I really don't think it is any different in any other field. At least that's what I've always told myself. :)