By now, any readers of this blog will have heard about what I’ll call “the great science retraction of 2015”.
In the midst of all the reporting about this issue, I’ve had a few thoughts of my own, so today in three Acts:
A modest proposal: criminal prosecution. Presuming that Michael LaCour was actually receiving federal funding for his research project, I would sincerely hope that misrepresentation using tax payer dollars could be a punishable offense. If it sounds harsh, just consider the damage that this case has done to the particular area of study and to science in general. It’s not that scientists are never wrong or that being wrong should be punishable. But we’re not talking about proving someone wrong, we’re talking about proving someone is fraudulent.
If damage to public opinion is too intangible for you to get on board with, think more concretely about the money that was spent on the project and on follow up projects trying to replicate and extend the results. Assuming the facts of the case as they’ve come to light in recent weeks stand, I for one am 100% on board with setting the precedent that outright academic fraud should have serious consequences. You might be saying to yourself that there were consequences, it sounds like he’ll probably lose the professorship that he had won at Princeton. To which I retort, him and me both. I hardly think that not getting to be a professor at Princeton is punishment, and if so, thousands of academics endure that punishment every day. It’s simply not enough.
I’ve read/heard a lot of criticism towards the co-author Donald Green. I of course don’t know Green, and can’t say what he did or didn’t know, but what I can say is this: there is absolutely, positively, no way that my advisor’s would or could know if I faked data. The amount of effort (years!) that it took for David Brookman to expose this case just shows how much work that Green would have to do to ensure confidence in the results. It’s simply unrealistic to expect every co-author who signs their name to a paper (or reviewer for that matter) to be held responsible for not repeating every aspect of the analysis and going through the raw data themselves with a fine toothed comb.
This dirty little secret is so dirty that it’s difficult to even write, because it feels faux pas to even think about. But the fact remains that the best that my advisors can do is trust my character. If they trust me, they trust my data. The unfortunate corollary of that is that sometime or another in all of our lives, we place our trust in the wrong people and these situations will inevitably arise. Of course, this isn’t to exempt all advisors, who can just as easily be the direct or indirect source (via pressure/unrealistic expectations) of the fraud themselves but from what I’ve read it just simply doesn’t seem to be the case here.
Finally, I can hardly overestimate how much every scientist should be going out of their way to shower David Brookman with praise. It’ll take a little bit of time, but read through this article to get a sense of how difficult this process was for our presumptive “heroes”. It is in the interest of all scientists to work towards tearing down the roadblocks that Brookman faced. Thankfully, with all the media coverage I’m pretty sure his standing is secure.
But this is a huge and unique case; I can confidently tell you of at least 3 separate studies published in good to great journals whose data I have personally analyzed and whose conclusions I feel that I can confidently refute. To the best of my knowledge, none of these cases are fraudulent (I checked to the best of my abilities but they seem to be more on the side of statistically inept). But I shouldn’t have to see outright fraud in order to push through my terror of upsetting the wrong people by correcting their science. The one thing I’m guaranteed to succeed in were I to try to publish those analyses (in a low-tier journal, no doubt) is infuriating the original authors and their friends. Brookman received advice telling him not to rock the boat at every corner, but at least the boat he’s rocking was big enough that the media would report on it when it went down. Much lesser offenses will merely poke the establishment-bear, providing precisely what advantage to my/anyones career?
No one knows how to fix this, including myself, but the first thing that can change tomorrow is that none of us (graduate students, post-docs, professors) should ever give the advice not to rock the boat. The boat only has the power that it does because we all believe that it shouldn’t be rocked. And that has to, and can, change immediately.