After graduating with a master’s in counseling, “Jackie Frank” (not her real name) decided to get some research experience before applying to a PhD program. She took a position at a small medical center where a researcher had a grant to study post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. As part of the job, Frank interviewed study volunteers to assess the severity of their condition — and that’s when she noticed something fishy was going on.
“Our supervisor framed leading questions and expected you to do that as well,” Frank says. The researchers, she believes, were trying to manipulate the study results “to make a bolder, statistically significant statement.”
Frank later noticed that some of data had been changed. “At that point, I knew we didn’t have the same ethical values,” she says.
Frank debated whether to “suck it up,” but ultimately decided to leave before her funding ran out. In her exit interview, she brought up her concerns and handed in a formal letter detailing her observations. Not long after, she heard that the lead researcher was under investigation for possible misconduct.
Nearly every graduate student faces ethical uncertainties, says Melissa Anderson, PhD, a professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who studies research integrity. But these quandaries become even more complicated when you suspect that your superior is involved in ethical misconduct.
“Graduate students, like all other researchers, are working at the frontier of knowledge,” she says. “And with every new thing, there’s the potential for new ethical complications.” The line between “cleaning up” and “cherry picking” data can be fuzzy, for example. And students may not be privy to all the nuances of a study’s protocol.
Even if ethical misconduct is clear, whistle-blowing may not always be the best option for you, says Michael Zigmond, PhD, a neurology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and associate director of an ethics workshop for graduate students. If you’re a fourth-year student and your adviser adds the head of the department to your paper even though he didn’t do any work, bringing it to the authorities’ attention may not be worth the potential damage to your career. On the other hand, if you’re working for a professor in another department and you witness sketchy research practices, quitting quietly and sharing your concerns in an exit interview — as Frank did — might be a good way to go.
Here’s some tried-and-true advice on how to navigate these and other ethical quagmires:
• Review the evidence. Avoid jumping to conclusions, Anderson says. You may not know the whole story. Reflect on your communications with the person you suspect of wrongdoing. What led you to suspect something isn’t quite right? Is there evidence to support what your gut is telling you?
If you don’t know what constitutes misconduct, consult your university’s guidelines or the U.S. Office of Research Integrity’s handbook on responsible conduct of research. Every university that receives federal research funding is obligated to adopt the federal definition of scientific misconduct — fabrication, falsification or plagiarism — and some institutions may have even stricter definitions.
Then write notes about any ethical violations you suspect, suggests Anderson. Be sure to jot down the details of every conversation: What was said, who was present, where it occurred, and the date and time. Save your emails, both the ones you send and the ones you receive. Keeping track of what you see can help you form a conclusion and provides invaluable documentation if you decide to report the situation. “Good recordkeeping throughout a research collaboration is important in any case,” she says. “But it becomes really important when something bad is going on.”
• Seek help. After scrutinizing the situation, get a second opinion, says Brian Nosek, PhD, director of psychology graduate studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. You need outsiders to help you “think through what the options are and the potential consequences of acting,” he says.
Whom can you trust? Many universities have an ombudsman, a neutral, independent party who can help students and faculty work out disputes. Best of all, conversations with ombudsmen are usually confidential, but be sure to verify this with your individual ombudsman before having a talk.
If you don’t have an ombudsman, try your university’s research integrity officer, who may be willing to speak with you off the record, Anderson says. Or consult a trusted peer or a faculty member. “It needs to be someone who really understands academic protocols and how research should be done, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone in your department,” she says.
But be careful whom you confide in, and be wary of departmental politics. “You don’t want to ignite smoldering political fires just by asking for advice on a sensitive issue,” Anderson says.
Zigmond recommends that students establish a network that includes older students and faculty members as soon as they enter school. That way, you have a range of different people you can turn to if a problem arises.
• Confront the problem. In many cases, you may want to talk directly to the person you suspect of ethical violations. Ask questions; don’t make accusations, says Nosek. Try saying, for example, “Can you tell me more about the research?” or “Can you explain why we’ve excluded this data?”
Often, says Nosek, students err on the side of staying silent. “I believe students shy away too much from bringing up concerns because of an exaggerated fear of retribution,” he says. “Mostly, I think advisers are just uninformed or inattentive to problems, rather than deliberately trying to create hassles for students.”
One drawback of confronting the person involved, however, is that bringing up concerns can lead advisers or research supervisors to think that you’re questioning their methods. Then, if someone does eventually blow the whistle, you may top the list of suspects, Anderson says.
In some cases, the evidence may be so incriminating you’ll want to take it directly to authorities. Zigmond heard of a case where a student saw that a research paper included data from samples that he knew were still in the freezer. “In that case, one could argue that you [already] have the critical information,” he says.
• Extricate yourself. If, after talking it out, you still believe your adviser or supervisor willfully breached research ethics, “get out,” Nosek says. “Careers will recover with a switch in labs or a switch in adviser. They won’t recover from active unethical practices that you are a part of.”
But you may not want to tell your adviser the real reason you’re leaving. What can you say instead? Try the old “It’s not you, it’s me” trick. Anderson suggests saying your interests have changed or that you’re taking advantage of another opportunity.
Leaving isn’t a decision to be made lightly. It may be difficult to find other research projects that interest you. In some departments, leaving a lab means losing your funding, Nosek points out.
But while jumping ship might require an awkward conversation or a revised research plan, sometimes you have no choice but to leave a lab that is engaged in unethical research practices — especially if you plan to blow the whistle and might get found out. “To me it’s no decision at all,” Nosek says.
• Blow the whistle. After you’ve decided to leave, you have an even touchier call to make: Should you report?
Reporting unethical research can be a scary proposition. “Lots and lots of whistle-blowers have been tremendously hurt by their whistle-blowing,” Zigmond says. You may irrevocably damage your relationship with your mentor, lose your funding or even experience professional retaliation. He recommends balancing the seriousness of the issue against the risk to yourself and your career.
If you do decide to blow the whistle, start by telling someone at the lowest level, Zigmond advises, such as the director of graduate studies. If that person doesn’t respond, you may have to take your concerns up the chain.
Each university has its own specific policies regarding scientific misconduct and how to report it. Nearly every university has a research integrity officer, however, who can be a valuable resource.
David Hudson, PhD, the University of Virginia’s research integrity officer and associate vice president for research, will even talk with students informally to discuss the implications of lodging a formal complaint. Often, he’ll get anonymous phone calls or letters alleging misconduct. Investigating those complaints is more difficult, but he takes them as seriously as any other.
Once a student makes a formal complaint, Hudson will first determine whether the allegation falls under the school’s definition of misconduct, and then assess whether there is enough evidence to launch an inquiry. (This would be a good time to turn in your logbook.)
Whistle-blowers do have some protection, but it varies from school to school, says Hudson, adding that he does everything he can to conceal the whistle-blower’s identity. For example, he would never force a student to meet with the inquiry panel. But in some cases, “your identity may be discernable from the evidence,” he says. Once the whistle-blower’s identity is known, Hudson can’t protect students from being shunned by their mentors in the parking lot, but he can prosecute more serious forms of retaliation. “Retaliation against a whistle-blower is in itself research misconduct,” he says.
As difficult as turning in a mentor may be, it is occasionally necessary. “If something really horrible is going on and you simply walk away, you’re compromising your own sense of professional responsibility,” Anderson says.
Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.
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