When Your Supervisor Is Accused of Research Misconduct
When Your Supervisor Is Accused of Research Misconduct

When Your Supervisor Is Accused of Research Misconduct

Early career researchers face unique challenges when a senior collaborator becomes embroiled in allegations of scientific malpractice.

Katarina Zimmer
Katarina Zimmer
Jun 1, 2020

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Evolutionary ecologist Kate Laskowski didn’t have a good start to her new faculty position at the University of California, Davis. She was just a few months in when, late last year, she received an email from a researcher who had some concerns about a study she had coauthored in 2016 with the prolific McMaster University spider biologist Jonathan Pruitt.  

As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, and later a postdoc at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Germany, Laskowski had collaborated with Pruitt on a study of spider social behavior. The email noted that the raw data collected in Pruitt’s lab, then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, contained odd duplicate values in the columns of a spreadsheet that documented behavioral differences among individual spiders. After combing through the data herself, Laskowski ultimately came to the conclusion that the data, and the study based on them, weren’t trustworthy, and requested earlier this year that the American Naturalist retract the paper. She’d go on to retract another two, both of which she’d coauthored with Pruitt. 

These studies—which supported the hypothesis that the behaviors of individual spiders are influenced by social interactions—would be the first of several of Pruitt’s papers to come under scrutiny from scientific journals, in a series of retractions and expressions of concern that has rattled the animal behavior research community and affected numerous collaborators, including many students and early-career researchers. “I’m in my first year of . . . my dream job,” Laskowski tells The Scientist. “I’ve been so excited to set up new projects, and then I’ve had to spend the past four months dealing with all of these old papers that I thought I was over and done with.”

You could see how this could be traumatic for a student.

 —Russell Tracy, University of Vermont Larner Col­lege of Medicine

McMaster University’s investigation into Pruitt’s publications is ongoing, and conclusions have yet to be drawn about whether the data oddities are accidental or due to manipulation. (Speaking to Science in January, Pruitt implied the issues were due to data mismanagement.) Yet the ensuing conversation within the scientific community has raised the question of what happens to early-career researchers when their senior collaborators or supervisors are accused, or worse, found guilty of research misconduct. 

Through no fault of their own, many graduate students and postdocs end up as collateral damage in such situations, says Wanda Jones, associate director of research integrity at the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which oversees institutional investigations into scientific misconduct. Among the 30 or so investigations for which the ORI returns a finding of misconduct each year, around 40 percent conclude that principal investigators (PIs) were the ones responsible, while the rest point the finger at students, technicians, and other staff, Jones says. In a given year, dozens of young researchers may find their research projects in jeopardy, or have to scramble to find new positions when their labs shut down—a challenge made particularly difficult by the retractions that often accompany misconduct allegations. 

“There may be tremendous misfortune that plays out among the postdocs, among the grad students, among the staff of the principal investigator found to have committed research misconduct,” Jones says. 

A loss of trust in science

The most immediate impact on early-career researchers affected by a misconduct scandal is often psychological, Jones notes—from worries about one’s scientific reputation and career prospects, to a crisis of trust in collaboration and in science as a whole. “You could see how this could be traumatic for a student,” says Russell Tracy, a biochemist at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. “They may just decide that they want to do something else with their life and not do this anymore.” 

That’s what Mary Ann Allen first thought in 2006 when she and five other graduate students discovered that their supervisor, biologist Elizabeth Goodwin at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, had falsified results on grant applications. The students ended up turning Goodwin in to the university administration, in an agonizing ordeal that they described to Science later that year. The university’s subsequent verdict that Goodwin had committed fraud led Allen to conclude that data fabrication was likely a lot more common in the scientific community than she had presumed. “When that happened—and this is true for almost everybody I’ve talked to who’s been in one of these situations—you come to the conclusion that the majority of science is falsified,” she says.

Allen’s reflexive reaction was to consider quitting grad school. But when she reached out to a researcher at another institution to ask for a reference to pursue a computer science degree, he gently encouraged her to continue in science, she recalls. “I’ve come back from that now because I’ve worked with a lot of labs who work hard to get their research,” she says. “But at that moment . . . it [was] the idea that you don’t trust science anymore.” As for Allen’s fellow students, three of them left graduate school before completing their PhDs, although The Scientist was unable to reach them to ascertain if that was because of the experience with Goodwin. 

 The search for new labs, funding

Allegations of misconduct against a PI raise complex logistical challenges in addition to existential ones for the people working in his or her lab. If a PI’s position is terminated, students have to find new scientific homes—although often, universities try to relocate students to new laboratories within the institution, notes Alexander Runko, the director of ORI’s division of investigative oversight. 

In the case of Goodwin’s lab, the thesis committees of the two students aside from Allen who decided to continue graduate school helped find new labs for them, Allen recalls. One of the students had to adopt a new research project, while the second insisted on continuing the research she had pursued under Goodwin’s supervision. Allen herself found a position in a new lab through a postdoc she knew. She ended up switching from studying genetic sex determination in Caenorhabditis elegans to researching RNA modulation, “a field I had been interested in anyway,” she recalls. In all three cases, the transition added years to the students’ PhD programs, although all eventually graduated.  

Staying in science can get particularly complicated when student visas, scholarships, or funding are tied to a particular investigator, Jones notes—although again, universities usually try to help where they can. Allen’s and her fellow grad students’ funding had been in Goodwin’s name, and when Goodwin was found guilty, the University of Wisconsin returned the sum to the federal government. Ultimately, the School of Medicine and Public Health came up with some funds to support the group, Allen recalls. The University of Ulm in Germany did something similar for graduate students who had been working in the lab of Friedhelm Herrmann and Marion Brach, two cancer researchers accused of data manipulation in 2000 (although both denied guilt). Eberhard Hildt, who raised the alarm about the scandal when he was a postdoc in their lab, tells The Scientist that the university stepped in to replace the lost financial support.  

The practical problems don’t end when students or postdocs are ready to leave the institution. Applying to positions elsewhere can be fraught for those coming from a lab whose reputation has been tainted by fraud allegations, even when they aren’t embroiled in the scandal themselves, Hildt notes. “It’s kind of a catastrophe because they are coming from a lab that is famous for scientific misconduct, and this is not the best reference,” he says. In 1997, when Hildt was growing suspicious over Hermann’s and Brach’s research practices, he confided in a former supervisor who had overseen his PhD thesis. That person not only supported Hildt in blowing the whistle, but also provided references for new job applications, says Hildt, now an investigator at the Paul Ehrlich Institute near Frankfurt.

Retractions and reputation concerns

Neither Hildt nor Allen had published research with their supervisors. But others have found themselves in situations where data manipulated or fabricated by senior collaborators have made their way into joint publications that end up getting retracted, creating unique challenges for young researchers whose careers are just getting off the ground. “It’s terrifying in some cases when stuff that you’ve contributed to, that you believe in, is now being retracted,” says Katharine White, a chemical biologist at the University of Notre Dame Harper Cancer Research Institute in Indiana. White witnessed a case of misconduct as a grad student at MIT, where a senior postdoc had falsified data—although White wasn’t involved in any of the postdoc’s papers. “PIs [often] manage to survive it. I don’t know if a lot of graduate students who are caught up in it survive it.”

Lost publications were a major concern for junior members of the lab of Eric Poehlman, an obesity and aging researcher at the University of Vermont who in 2005 pleaded guilty to charges of data fabrication in studies and grant applications. After losing several manuscripts to retractions, Poehlman’s postdocs suddenly had little to show for more than a year’s worth of research.

I was of course afraid that [it] could end up with me being fired from my job.

 —An anonymous researcher whose supervisor was accused of misconduct

Worried about how the loss would affect future applications for new positions and grants, the University of Vermont’s Tracy, then the senior associate dean for research and academic affairs at the school, got together with other senior faculty to advise the postdocs on how to explain the situation in their CVs and in grant proposals. He also wrote letters to grant officials at the National Institutes of Health “to let them know that it’s unfortunate, but a lot of their hard work isn’t being represented in their bio sketches because of the malfeasance of Dr. Poehlman,” he recalls. “What impact those letters had I don’t know, but we felt as an institution it was part of our job to help our young investigators build their careers.” 

Retractions related to misconduct allegations can affect researchers years after the papers themselves are published. In 2009, a European researcher, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, was a few years into a job at a biotech firm when a paper they had coauthored as a PhD student with the Danish neuroscientist Milena Penkowa was retracted. On top of the “painful” experience of having to comb through raw data collected seven years earlier in order to assist an investigation into Penkowa’s research practices—and to clear their own name—the anonymous researcher says they worried that the retraction would prompt the University of Copenhagen to invalidate their PhD thesis because the study had formed a key part of it. The researcher also feared that the widely publicized investigation—which resulted in a “blatant forgery” charge for Penkowa (later overturned on appeal)—would influence their employers. “I was of course afraid that [it] could end up with me being fired from my job because they then wouldn’t trust in me,” the researcher recalls.

Fortunately, their former PhD supervisor took action to ensure that their thesis wasn’t affected by the process, and the researcher was able to reassure their employers that they hadn’t played a role in the suspect part of the retracted paper. Nevertheless, when they apply to new positions, they only display their “top five” publications, the researcher says, because they don’t want potential employers to immediately associate them with Milena Penkowa. 

Positive consequences from addressing misconduct 

Despite the obstacles they create for everyone involved, misconduct investigations and the conversations they inspire can spur positive change, not least at the institutions that handle such situations. For instance, in the wake of the investigations into Goodwin’s actions, the University of Wisconsin–Madison introduced an official policy to help relocate students to new laboratories and secure funding should similar situations with other PIs arise in the future. When Allen started a faculty position at the University of Colorado Boulder, she helped the institution set up a similar policy. 

For the young researchers themselves, coming face-to-face with alleged or proven scientific misconduct can be transformative, making them more-diligent scientists and educators. Laskowski, for instance, now gives any data collected as part of her research a full “strip search” during analysis, though she will continue to trust her collaborators, she says. And Hildt tries to encourage his students to be open-minded about the outcome of experiments and to avoid mindsets that could lead to data fabrication. White and Allen say they’ve instated similar practices.

Even people who aren’t involved in the affected labs can learn from watching incidents unfold from afar. Alexandra McInturf, a PhD candidate studying animal behavior at the University of California, Davis, says the ongoing Pruitt investigations have made her reflect on the publish-or-perish mindset of academia—a thought process she documented in a widely praised blog article back in February. “I hope this Pruitt data debacle, for whatever reason it was caused, sparks a lot of really good momentum in the future to create better science, even if it’s at a slower pace,” she tells The Scientist

Allen, who now teaches a class on responsible research conduct alongside her courses on RNA’s roles in disease at Boulder, says that this desire to create a better community is common among people affected by the issues surrounding scientific misconduct. “If you stay in science, which not everybody does, you champion good science.” 

What to do if your supervisor is suspected of research misconduct

If the suspicions are your own, let someone know: The Office for Research Integrity (ORI) advises people to contact the ORI, institutional research integrity officers, journal editors where publications are concerned, and funding agencies for grant applications. Often, anonymous complaints are possible “if [whistleblowers] have a fear of retaliation,” says the ORI’s Alexander Runko

Shore up professional connections: Find other senior researchers at your institution whom you trust—thesis advisory committee members or department chairs,
for example—who can vouch for you, write references, and offer guidance, says Mary Ann Allen, an RNA biologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I know networking is hard,” she says, “but that really helps more than anything in these situations.”

Read your institution’s policies: Many institutions have policies to protect whistleblowers, and sometimes to help students find new positions. “Make sure that you understand what your institution is supposed to be doing for you,” says Russell Tracy, a biochemist at the University of Vermont. 

Be transparent: If you’ve lost papers to retractions, or have publication gaps, you can explain why and highlight your role in retracted papers in your CV or on funding applications, notes Katharine White, a cancer biologist at the University of Notre Dame. “People respond to people that can talk knowledgeably and confidently about their results.”  

Talk about it: Kate Laskowski of the University of California, Davis, recommends speaking with a licensed counselor, friends, or other affected students. “Seek out as much support as you can from other people.”