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Tufts Ph.D. ‘Punished’ for Reporting Adviser’s Fabricated Research: Lawsuit (thedailybeast.com)
136 points by MyHypatia 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

This sort of situation is something I suggest people think about ahead of time. If you decompose it into the basic

"I just discovered that some one, or my company/institution, on which my livelihood currently depends, is engaged in fraudulent/immoral/illegal/unethical activies."

The next question is "Now what do I do?" It ranges from report it and leave immediately, to let the leadership know you are there to help. When I was at Intel I discovered that someone within Intel was selling memory chips that had 'binned out' (failed one of the edge cases tested post production) on the grey market. I took the path of reporting it, which ended up in this employee's dismissal. My manager at the time talked with me and said that while he admired my integrity he wondered if I understood the risk I had taken. We talked about it, and the number of people that had to be working together in order for this little scheme to work, and they only fired one guy. The implication was that there were still an unknown number of people at the company who knew (or suspected) that I had interrupted their gravy train. At least one of them had to be reasonably high up the management chain. So now I likely had 'enemies' where before I was just an unknown.

You might think, "Wow, are people really thinking like that?" and my experience suggests that yes, they really do.

So think about the consequences of being the "good guy" can be just as painful for you in a different way than they are for the "bad guy." It isn't an easy choice.

In academia it's slightly different: "I just discovered that the brand on which my livelihood currently depends, is engaged in fraudulent/immoral/illegal/unethical activities."

If it transpires that your advisor has fabricated data your own achievements immediately become suspect and funding agencies, journal reviewers and future employers may treat you as collateral damage.

There's also the fact that new PhDs typically rely on recommendations from their advisors and dissertation committees. She's obviously not getting one from her advisor. And that in itself might be fatal.

I mean, what might another dissertation committee member say to counter lack of support from her advisor? And how likely is it that any of them would say it?

Also, it's not obvious why Tufts is at fault.

I think 'exit' (as opposed to 'voice') is an underrated strategy in this case. I have heard of many people being consumed by lawsuits, drawn out conflicts, wasted lives in pursuit of correcting a wrong, driven more by ego than by a desire for justice. Perhaps there is merit in doing that, but any corruption within any system feeds off of sincere people. Imagine, an organization couldn't survive for too long if most of the well meaning people left. Balaji Srinivasan's talk on this was quite insightful:


Can’t upvote this enough. This is exactly the reason most people choose not to report unless they find themselves in a position where the could not plausibly deny knowledge. I’m sure it happens in every industry that those that report get punished and there is no reward for it.

I obviously don't know the details, but it sounds like proper whistleblower protections and channels would've helped? Ideally OP could have reported it, and stayed anonymous/not have his manager find out. It's probably not so simple in real life, but having to use existing management chains makes it harder, because they're usually not well equipped to deal with such situations (or worse, might have a hand in it).

There are usually no such thing as truly anonymous reporting. The act of reporting makes you a leper in the corporate structure and retaliation is pretty common, and difficult to prove in court.

This is why the only credible way that a company can say it is attempting not to do X fraud, once that fraud comes to light, is to have a process in place to support whistle blowers.

Without such a process, all this stuff comes back in spades. With such a process, you still have a struggle but at least you have a chance.

Also it's why journalists need strong protections when reporting this stuff. etc.

Most of the time "Get out of the blast radius and cover your ass" is about as far as you want to go.

Actually blowing the whistle is generally not in your best interest. Most people only do that when there really is no other option to protect themselves.

The worst part is that if you have genuine evidence on someone with actual power, you're better off keeping that in your pocket rather than reporting them. As in chess, "The threat is often more effective than its actually execution."

Back in the day when every thing was paper my dad said they can purge the files of incriminating evidence. But nothing keeps someone with a grudge from slipping it back before the next audit.

Unfortunately this is really the only way to do things though. Except to use a completely anonymous system (does such a tool even exist? Or one that is close?). And it creates a feedback of unethical behavior. Unethical behavior starts out small and grows step by step, the person might not even realize how far they've come. There's also this same ethical slipping on the viewers side. They may never participate, but what they become complacent with not reporting can grow. They may feel fear that something is only slightly unethical and don't want someone to be fired. That also grows.

So unethical behavior needs to be stopped early on, before it is a firable offense. But that requires a change where ethical people can feel safe reporting and also not feel like they are going to ruin someone's career for something small (I think this is also a key component).

So how do you take care of responsible reporting with these kinds of problems? Even if we ignore the already existing unethical behavior.

I completely agree.

To add to that, you could however also have created some people really thinking highly of you as well, especially for people appreciating such things as honesty and loyalty. That could be worth a lot as well. Not always enough, but sometimes a huge win.

Hah, it kind of sounds like your manager was giving you the ol' Walter White "tread carefully" - are you sure he wasn't involved?

>When she approached Byrnes with this discovery, her adviser told her that “it was fine to publish this data, because if they had done the experiment, this data reflected the result they would have gotten,” the lawsuit claims.

This seems pretty alarming.

No, you are wrong; it is not alarming, because according to my theory, this is not at all alarming.

I hear Tufts is looking for researchers like you.

I'm going to publish data showing that a big rock falls faster than a little rock. It is fine to publish it because if I did the experiment it would reflect the result I'm publishing.

This reads like a satire. Inconceivable a scientist would say that.

Unfortunately, many academics are driven by prestige more so than scientific discovery.

That is, many academic "scientists" are not actually scientists.

Only academics humble and rich enough to live comfortably without depending on their short term output are scientists. In the 10y+ I've already spent in the academic system, my personal experience is that the number of "actual scientists" is very close to zero.

Give academia capitalistic-geared goals and this is the inevitable outcome.

Capitalistic? They profit from this kind of behavior because they are shielded from capitalistic-geared reality.

They have built an ivory tower that has nothing to do with capitalism.

It's clearly the other way round. Competition is so fierce that people spin up fraudulent results to keep their job. Today's university work is becoming eerily similar to its corporate counterpart. Which is a huge loss for us all.

Not all people, just some people, those who are protected and think they can get away with it.

Imagine this story the other way around - PhD candidate accused by respectable researcher of making up data...the accuser would have been held out as a hero.

This has nothing to do with capitalism.

Odd how the whistleblower is finding herself in the same position as if she actually committed the fraud.

Look, I don't know what your personal experience is, but mine is that fabrication, or at least very optimistic interpretation of results is routine in most science shops. Many PIs actually spin up their PhDs results. This is so common nobody even talks about it anymore.

Yes, this has everything to do with capitalism. The optimal situation for science is when research institutions are surrounded by riches, i.e capitalism, but science is itself not too much constrained by money.

Capitalism does not reward honesty. It rewards ambition and greed. Today's universities faithfully reflect that.

What fields are you drawing from in your personal experience?

Not surprising in the slightest. I work in machine learning and no longer trust most papers I read. A lot of papers have fabricated or dishonest results, and the people who publish these results are often the ones who get recognition, jobs at FB etc. It happens in all fields of so-called "science".

What are some signs an ML paper is untrustworthy?

Being advertised in mainstream media seems like a good initial assessment for shit science :-)

No code

This is an alleged fabrication.

When I was a graduate student I discovered some fabricated results and was told in no uncertain terms that if I pressed the matter that my career would be over before it began. So I kept my mouth shut.

And now you're the dean.

Sounds like management material! PROMOTE!

Did you keep working there?

Yes, but the institution at which I discovered the fabrication was not the same as the one at which I was enrolled as a grad student.

Can you report it now?

It's ancient history. This happened in the 90's. Also, one of the reasons I decided not to report it then was that I could not actually prove anything. I could have easily tampered with the equipment myself, and I expected that if I made a stink out of it that is exactly what the perpetrator would accuse me of doing. I couldn't think of any way I could defend myself in that case, which is one of the reasons I decided not to pursue it.

I did confront the perpetrator privately and his response was that the results I was seeing was from a different version of the software than the one that produced the reported results. This seemed implausible to me for reasons that are too complicated to recount here, but again, no way to prove it.

On the plus side, that line of research was quietly abandoned and so I may have had the intended effect. The results are still on the record, but no one really cares any more.

Having read the article I fail to see how she was "Punished" by Tufts. She made an accusation of alleged wrongdoing. Tufts investigated and while the investigation was ongoing they briefly delayed awarding her Ph.D. Seems appropriate under the circumstances and they did ultimately award her two Ph.D.'s. An accusation was leveled against her of wrongdoing. Tufts investigated and she was cleared by Tufts of the allegation.

The professor still works there but we have no idea if the professor was censored in some means other than firing or if the investigation failed to produce the hard proof the university felt was needed to fire the professor without facing a wrongful termination suit or other legal ramifications. If the university continued to employee the professor with proof that they had falsified data this would speak poorly of Tufts but isn't something the complainant should somehow be financial compensated for.

The article reveals no evidence that the complainant not getting a position following has been the result of any defamation or effort by either Tufts or the accused professor. Whether right or wrong knowing that you have previously filed such a complaint will make most employers avoid hiring you. Why take on the slightest risk when there other candidates which don't present such risk.

Maybe there is more that has not been revealed but what is int the article doesn't seem to support a financial payout to the complainant.

My understanding is that fabricated results are so common that less than half of papers can be replicated. Nobody wants to go after the cheaters because it would embarrass the institution and the university would loose grant money.

That's not generally about outright fabrication, but instead due to invalid statistical procedures.

Many students are still taught, in 2019, that the appropriate way to conduct a multiple linear regression analysis is to:

1. Fit univariate comparisons to all your explanatory variables of interest

2. Take the significant variables and put them in a multiple regression analysis

3. Report the p-values from the regression analysis as valid and meaningful.

This is incorrect for several reasons (type 1 error rate inflation, confusion about marginal and conditional effects etc.), but people still do it. That's before we even account for publication bias, in which null results are often "shelved" or not accepted for publication.

Indeed, I'm finishing a MSc degree in epidemiology and I was pretty surprised that they presented that as "the only correct way" (program rated 2nd worldwide for epidemiology).

However, I do not agree that this is the most common problem. Ten years as a professional have shown me that the real issue is that 95% of people using statistics don't have a single clue about how the techniques they use daily really work.

It's especially alarming given the booming machine learning fad.

Yes, I was just picking out one example I've seen where even if people do what they're taught, they'll end up doing bad statistics. As you say the problems don't end there.

It isn’t because of fabricated results, but rather that some of these analyses are very difficult to perform. Some papers require specific techniques or tools that aren’t widely available. Some depend on biological samples that were exhausted. Some used poor experimental design. There are lots of reasons why a particular paper might be difficult to replicate. Academic publishing tends to reward those that make big discoveries or find something novel. Unfortunately, reproducibility isn’t as high on the priority list as it should be.

But all that said - the amount of outright fabricated data is pretty small. Many people can make mistakes or overstate the meaning of their data. But the amount of people who flat out fake their data is really small. And institutions are more likely to loose grant money if they turn a blind eye than if they self regulate.

100% agree. Just to add, as well as being difficult to perform, some experiments are highly sensitive to noise. In my experience, it's not uncommon in biology to sometimes have difficulty replicating your own experiments. There are always more variables than can be controlled, e.g. environmental conditions, different batches of reagents, how you handle samples, how animals are housed, electrostatic effects from different glassware / plastics, small changes in the genetic background, etc.

> she reported her adviser, Dr. Elizabeth Byrnes, for allegedly fabricating data

Is way too cautious of a wording.

She reported her advisor for fabricating data, not for allegedly fabricating data. You can't report someone for allegedly doing something.

She alleged her adviser fabricated data.

She reported that her adviser fabricated data.

Thereby she's alleging her adviser fabricated data.

For anyone having trouble with the paywall, adding a '.' after the .com and before the '/' lets you close the popup. Otherwise, disabling javascript also works.

Behold, the marvelous results of capitalist science!

The more you convert academic science to just another industry (i.e constrain PIs by way of funding), the more people you'll have who will behave just as in other industries.

Hardly surprising.


Tufts University seems to have some problems. Sounds like a pretty shitty university.

idk about the rest of the school, but the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy alumni list is a who's-who of global politics and international trade. [1]


I'd be more impressed with the folks on that list if they managed global trade in such a way that it didn't give us Trump, Brexit, and resurgent nationalism.

Suing the university that gave her a PhD and publicly shaming her adviser: I guess she never wants an academic job ever. I’m actually surprised she got the degree after filing all of those complaints, usually they can figure out a way to make you go away.

You mean most potential academic employers would rather have their employees cover up scientific fraud? That's quite a low opinion on academia.

No I mean most large corporations would rather have employees that don't have a history of suing similar large corporations for damages incurred after whistleblowing. It's only a little worse in universities compared to other faceless corporations because the fields are so small and so much of an academic career is built on reputation.

You're starting from the assumption that the allegations are true. But if you're inside the field, you know the professor, go to conferences with him... At some point, the department has to decide if you want to hire a troublemaker, and then actually go to bat for them with the administration who will look at the hire as a business risk.

Hiring someone with a reputation of standing up for proper academic conduct would signal to the outside world that you have nothing to hide and that you also stand for those values.

This isn't a troublemaker, this is a proper academic who knows the importance of protocol and scientific process.

Yes, and if academia was a fantasy land where everyone worked with the proper scientific process as a goal and no one needed more grant funding this would be great.

I've gotten a lot of downvotes, and I'm not really sure why. This isn't my opinion of how things should be, it's based on what I observed in university. I knew a guy who tried the suing the university for messing up his graduate education thing -- life did not turn out well for him. The highest paid state employees are college football coaches, because they make the most money. Funds that used to help professors are pouring into middle management and image consultants. Modern universities are run with all of the techniques and moral flexibility of multinational corporations, and no amount of downvotes will change that.

The choice between 1) maintaining status quo, and 2) losing one or more professors who are bringing money in, if we push through the charges, for potential reputation gain. I think most business administrator would choose former.

I see that can be so in the US where hiring decisions seem to be more business oriented. Not sure if it works like that in every country. In Germany, professors have great freedom in choosing who to hire. For example phd student applicants directly contact and interview with the prof. Probably there is some form of veto from above though, but rarely exercised.

> signal to the outside world that you have nothing to hide

This only matters if the outside cares very deeply about that, which it doesn't seem to, not enough to outweigh the benefit of not having to deal with incidents in the first place. You have to consider the real opportunity cost: signalling is less effective than silence.

it's truly hard to know how this will affect her career. If the lawsuit is successful and she proves she was a valid whistleblower with a legitimate claim, some employers may consider that a sign she is a high-integrity researcher. But more hiring managers or deans would just see the whistleblowing as a proxy metric of difficulty to work with.

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