Troubles for young scientists in academia

12 10 2010

Here are a few case studies of what’s happening in top research institutes around the world (names and obvious identifiers have been changed):

Case Study 1: I don’t want to be the first to disagree with Mr. Famous.

Dr. Somebody published finding that exciting finding, Activity ‘B’ was detected in the brains of Parkinson’s patients.  Dr. Famous published a finding that Activity ‘B’ was also detected in parkinsonian monkeys.   A large number of Parkinson’s disease researchers made the mad dash to replicate said findings in all of their research models, yet at best researchers have come up with weakly similar results or nothing close. Dr. Justasfamous’s postdoctoral fellow also cannot replicate the finding in monkeys.  The postdoc speaks to many researchers at SuperBig conference and find that everyone is struggling to try to replicate Dr. Famous’s infamous Activity B. The postdoc tells her advisor at lab meeting that she just doesn’t see Activity B in her research and mentions that she has personally spoken to several researchers having the same struggle.  The lab members discuss that there are several weaknesses in Dr. Somebody’s research and several desperate statistical analyses going on to attempt to polish data to show Activity B.  Another postdoc suggests that Dr. Justasfamous write a review to discuss these problems in the field thinking that it would be helpful for all the struggling researcher and even provide a bit of relief.  Dr. Justasfamous says that Dr. Famous is too much of an authority and it would be pointless to write such a review.  Meanwhile, the postdoc is requested to abandon his data.  No one will be willing to publish such contradictory data anyway.

Case Study 2: I need to publish no matter what it takes!

Dr. Newsome is a new postdoc in the lab of Dr. Noncon.  Dr. Newsome is expected to work with Dr. Leaving to help Dr. Leaving finish up his project while he moves on to his new position. Dr. Leaving agrees begrudgingly to help Dr. Newsome at first.  Dr. Leaving says that he used to be a computer programmer and that he knows how to create the results he needs without even collecting real data.  Dr. Leaving also says that he knows how to run experiments in ways to skew his data in the direction he needs. Dr. Newsome assumes Dr. Leaving is joking and is still learning the ropes of all the new techniques.  Dr. Leaving begins to get very distant and begins to work only in the middle of the night when he knows Dr. Newsome will not be at work or during inconsistent times so that Dr. Newsome must learn the techniques from other colleagues. Dr. Noncon eventually tells Dr. Newsome that Dr. Leaving is a bit difficult and that Dr. Leaving suspects that Dr. Newsome is trying to steal first authorship from him. Dr. Leaving came from a very small school and English is not his first language. He has worked very hard to find a good postdoc in the U.S. and now his second position. Dr. Newsome was surprised and had no intention of taking the lead as the primary author on these data, but Dr. Leaving is not convinced.  After Dr. Leaving has left, Dr. Newsome realizes that Dr. Leaving has taken all webdrive data, notebooks, and the external hard drive with him. Dr. Leaving sends his analyzed data back to Dr. Noncon who shows the data to Dr. Newsome.  Dr. Leaving’s data is surprisingly clean, much more straightforward than typically expected with the techniques used in the lab.  When reading over a draft of the manuscript, Dr. Newsome notices many methodologies listed that weren’t true.  When Dr. Newsome mentioned these, thinking they were typos, Dr. Leaving aggressively denied the errors.  Dr. Leaving had left only one document on the lab’s server and it had information that stated otherwise. In fact, Dr. Leaving was the author of this document. Dr. Newsome begins to suspect that his data might actually be fabricated, but has no proof.  Also, Dr. Newsome knows that Dr. Noncon needs this publication for a grant renewal.

Case Study 3: Mine, mine, mine!

Adam had been one of Dr. Bully’s favorite student’s so much so that he asked Adam to come with him to Big University to help he start his new lab (and enjoy the fruits of his new promotion).  When Adam began work with Dr. Bully, Dr. Bully told Adam to “pick” a research project.  Dr. Bully did drug addiction research and Adam decided that he wanted to study Chemical B and it’s role in drug addiction. Adam became very passionate about this project and was excited to continue this work at Big U. When Adam arrived at Big U, Dr. Bully’s personality changed.  In addition, Dr. Bully became very busy, and kept emphasizing that they were at Big U now and they needed to work hard to fit in.  In fact, Dr. Bully tried to get Adam to switch projects.  Adam was already having to take new classes and in helping to set up the new lab, he felt he had lost a lot of time and was eager to publish his findings. Dr. Bully asked Adam to give a department talk about his work where Dr. Bully attacked Adam’s project in front of a large group.  Dr. Fair especially took interest in Adam’s project and wanted to collaborate.  Adam eventually took his project to Dr. Fair’s lab.  Dr. Bully did not seem to be disappointed to lose the project telling Adam that, “You’ll never get a PhD” with this project. Dr. Bully did stay on Adam’s dissertation committee.  Adam’s project brought strong results. Dr. Fair and Adam wrote and submitted the paper to a top journal and entered the data as a chapter in Adam’s dissertation. While Dr. Bully was reviewing a draft of Alex’s dissertation, he called Dr. Fair.  Dr. Bully exclaimed, “At least some of these ideas must have originally been mine!” and demanded that he be listed as co-author. Dr. Fair and Alex felt this was not true and were surprised given that Dr. Bully had seen these data during Adam’s las committee meeting and said nothing. Dr. Fair added Dr. Bully to the list of authors, not because he believed Dr. Bully truly contributed, but to “keep the peace.” Dr. Fair felt his position was less secure as a new Assistant Professor vs. Dr. Bully’s tenured position.  After Adam graduated, Dr. Bully began pursuing Adam’s project using the “future directions” from Adam’s dissertation.  He did not offer to include Dr. Fair on future manuscripts.

Case Study 4: When Peer Review fails (taken from Emory ethics class).

Dr. Rolf and Dr. Janice work on similar projects but in two different model systems and have decided to co-submit their papers. Around the time that the two papers are published, a third paper on the same project is published in a different journal. A few months later, Dr. Rolf and Dr. Janice receive an anonymous email stating that the author on the third paper had been one of their reviewers and held up their papers in order to finish his.

This is not necessarily happening in every case, but most scientists would not be shocked from these stories.  In my next blog, I’ll address the issue of scientists and their weakening hold in society as a moral authority.