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Home No. 18: Handling falsification of lab data and preventing future issues

Aug 09

No. 18: Handling falsification of lab data and preventing future issues

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Handling falsification of lab data and preventing future issues

Reader Question: I suspect that a grad student in my lab is falsifying animal-testing data. What should I do? Is there anything I could have done earlier to prevent this — or do now to prevent it going forward?"

Expert comments: As the principal investigator, you are responsible to ensure that testing data are recorded honestly and correctly in your lab. At this point, you have two possible routes:

• If the student under suspicion normally reports directly to you, ask to see his or her lab notebook and corroborating evidence, such as images, actual gels, etc.

• If the student reports to a post-doc, ask the post-doc to audit the notebook and data and report back to you.

These notebook audits should be a regular part of your laboratory routine, so this should not seem threatening to the student. As you proceed, do not necessarily assume the worst.

If this is the first time this has happened, ask the student in a non-confrontational way if there could be a recording error or some other innocuous explanation for data discrepancies. Emphasize that accuracy and truth are paramount. Let the student know that predetermined/fraudulent results are a waste of time, money, and effort. Worse, they will lead the lab (friends and colleagues) in the wrong direction, which is even more waste!

Point out that even scientists (including scientists-in-training) can make honest mistakes, but we should learn from them and try to eliminate them in the future. Ask the student for suggestions on how to avoid a similar error in the future.

In the next regular lab meeting, it should be announced that some data errors thankfully were picked up in a regular audit and the entire lab team should be asked for input into ways for everyone to avoid a similar error. This raises awareness and reinforces the paramount importance of scientific/intellectual integrity, and gives everyone both responsibility for, and buy-in into, the lab's culture of integrity.

If discrepancies continue, there should be closer supervision (more frequent audits, perhaps) and the reasons for them discovered (competitiveness? subtle pressure to please? emotional/mental instability?). There may be need for the PI to consult with campus menta- health professionals on how to proceed.

Because we are human, inadvertent mistakes happen. Deliberate/intentional deceit, on the other hand, is abhorrent and intolerable. If deliberate and continued falsification is unambiguously verified, then dismissal is in order.

In that case you likely will have to consult with institution's personnel office, graduate-studies office, legal office, etc., on how to proceed.

As for what you might have done earlier, you as the laboratory head should cultivate an environment of scientific integrity. A key to this is modeling ethical behavior and showing that data that do not meet "expected" outcomes present valuable opportunities for new research.

It is the PI's responsibility to set the tone. Just as parents have enormous influence on a child's core values, PIs as mentors have enormous influence on how a trainee perceives and learns about science and its values. This means walking the walk, not just talking the talk. The adage that "actions speak louder than words" certainly applies.

As each new person joins your lab, you could meet face-to-face with them privately, not only to welcome him/her to the lab, but to give an overview of laboratory goals and those of specific projects. Stress that the lab and you as PI are trying to uncover "scientific truth," whatever that may be.

If goals are stated as " We want to determine what, why, how?" this leads one to look for the answer. One can even say as a hypothesis, "We want to test/determine if it is X, Y, or Z." On the other hand, if goals are stated as "We want to show that it is X, Y, Z," then you are asking for a predetermined outcome. Avoid that.

Regularly scheduled (at least monthly) meetings of the entire lab wherein new data are rigorously analyzed and challenged are encouraged. You can ask: Is it repeatable? What were the controls? What could have affected the outcome? What are possible alternate interpretations? How can we be certain?. This helps create an environment wherein everyone understands that accuracy is paramount and the thought of fraud never even occurs.

In my training, lab results (mine or someone else's) that were "too good to be true" were always the most strictly examined.

Ideally, there should be a lot of lab teamwork. More than one person should be involved in generating or gathering data (e.g., one person weighs, measures, etc. while another records). This builds in corroboration and, with two pairs of eyes involved, minimizes opportunities for fraud. It also helps create an "esprit de corps," minimizing isolation of individuals.

In any lab, a practical reason to quash fraud is that a lot of time, money, and effort can be wasted following up on things that are untrue. In the end, this leads to frustration (already plenty of that!), lost opportunities, and low morale.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) regularly reports on cases of scientific misconduct (e.g., http://ori.dhhs.gov/misconduct/cases/). These cases should be discussed in your lab and used as object lessons. Sometimes they contain enough specifics (plagiarism, intentional mislabeling, data fabrication, certain behaviors, etc.) that they can raise consciousness about what to guard against.

Many graduate programs and even funding agencies require courses in scientific ethics for trainees. If not available at your own institution, nearby courses could be sought out for your trainees. Be clear that you regard this to be an integral and important part of their training as scientists — not merely a hoop to jump through. Enroll personally. That would be a powerful message in itself.

Comments by Ludeman A. Eng, MA, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and anatomy and assistant dean for strategic innovations, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg,Va.

Additional comment

Graduate students funded by NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are required to be trained in ethics and the responsible conduct of research.

If scientific misconduct is suspected, institutions must have a way for people to report suspected misconduct without fear of retribution.

If the issue has anything to do with the appropriate use of the animals or any concern about animal welfare or compliance, institutions must (by two federal laws) have procedures and policies in place so that the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) is informed and evaluates that concern. The person reporting the concern is also held without fear of reprisal.

Both the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals http://grants.nih.gov/grants/olaw/references/phspol.htm and the Animal Welfare Act http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/index.shtml require that the IACUC investigate concerns about inappropriate animal use.

Comment by Patricia N. Coan, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACLAM, director, Office of Laboratory Animal Care, University of Tennessee.

Comments (11)
Doctor of Philosophy in Physics
written by Brian, August 13, 2010
There are two solutions to this problem, assuming the person has been unethical in recording data.

1. If the person can handle correction and be changed, then you could directly confront the person in private and tell them that their behavior is unacceptable and that they are a failure as a scientist. Tell them you are giving them an opportunity to do right and to be a scientist. If the person is of any character, then you should be able to trust them closer than a brother.

2. If the person is of doubtful character or if your group is of questionable ethic, then you must expose the error in public and remove the person from your group. It is better to remove the one and try to save all of the other budding scientists than to try to save the one and not have a lasting impact on the group. Your own research and the quality of the scientists that you are training are too important to sweep this problem under the rug. There are too many scientists today of doubtful character.
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