I recently reviewed “The Lab”, an interactive video produced by the Office of Research Integrity, in which you can play one of four people who had opportunities to minimize the damage of another person’s misconduct. I had made a beeline for playing the part of the PI, who I believe has the most responsibility (other than the actual perpetrator), the most ability to influence the outcome, and the least risk if he chooses to do nothing.
Recently I spent another half-hour playing the part of the graduate student who catches the fraud. Again, the acting (for a training video) is good quality, the dialog is not forced and stilted. As far as the storyline, one scene actually brought tears to my eyes: her mother, who had not been supportive of her stepping forward with her accusations, has a change of heart after mom’s minister told the parents that their daughter, far from being a failure, is a hero.
I was not quite as satisfied with the video’s portrait of the grad student’s experience as I had been with the PI perspective. Realistically, there is no good outcome for the grad student, whether she comes forward or not. In fact, the outcome of her having her own lab years later is pretty unrealistic no matter what anyone else had or hadn’t done. In the worst case scenario, years later she is horrified because that postdoc had finally gotten caught and all of his publications, including the ones she was in, were under investigation. As a PI, is that really going to effect her much? Most graduate students in her situation, facing the decision of whether or not to report fraud in the lab, would NOT be swayed by some potential future repercussions, particularly as the odds of them actually landing a tenure track job are so slim in the first place.
The best case scenario, in which she reports the fraud, is also not compelling. She experiences retaliation for having come forward, everyone knows it was her even though the Research Integrity Officer claimed to protect her anonymity. She ends up leaving her lab and joining another, which sets her back a year because she has to switch projects. In this day and age, she can find a lab that has funding for her? She is set back ONLY a year?
Suppose the misconduct had never occurred. The implication was that the postdoc’s fraud made the lab shine, so it was well funded and prestigious, and everyone in the lab benefited. Without the misconduct, the lab would have been average, and her prospects not as shiny. Without funding, her project would suffer, toiling with old methods and making her own reagents (and mistakes) would delay her finishing. She wouldn’t get the prestigious postdoc and she wouldn’t get the tenure track position.
If I had written her story, I’d have had her get a job as a Research Integrity Officer after going through what she did to report the misconduct. The way that academia works right now, there is no good outcome for a graduate student in a lab where fraud occurs, whether or not the fraud is reported, whether or not the grad student is the one to report it.
One thing I found very interesting is that the storyline for “best possible outcome” changes if you play the grad student vs. the PI. As the PI, you had the chance to build a culture of trust, and in the best outcome your grad student came to you, you took her concerns seriously and you contacted the Research Integrity Officer. When you play the grad student, there is no culture of trust in place. If you talk to your PI first, nothing happens and you end up going to the Research Integrity Officer yourself. I like that the “default” situation is that there is no culture of trust. Because if you are in one of the few labs like that, you don’t need this training video.
I’m hooked now, I’ll be playing the other postdoc (not the perpetrator) and the Research Integrity Officer next!