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how we will represent you

More than anything, a scientist’s good name is his or her professional lifeblood. An allegation of research misconduct threatens to cut off that lifeblood and requires the most zealous and seasoned advocacy. Such allegations can result in draconian harm, in the form of damage to professional reputation, termination of grants, ineligibility for future grants, suspension or removal from faculty and research positions, disciplinary sanctions from professional licensing boards, and even (rarely) criminal prosecution. In light of such perils, allegations of research misconduct must be taken seriously, and must be addressed directly and with precision.

Sinister Motivations from Colleagues

Secondly, many such allegations are made for personal or professional motivations that are unrelated to the merits of the science. Laboratories, we have learned, can be intensely competitive environments in which fellow scientists compete for credit and future benefits from research. Although the large majority of scientists are dedicated to truth in scientific discovery, a small minority seek to gain at the expense of lab mates. In our experience, we have seen postdocs falsify data of research they have conducted and conceal the falsification from their Principal Investigators. We have seen lab mates wrestle over credit for the success of certain experiments. And we have seen allegations made out of personal jealousy and grievance, and as part of ongoing vendettas. Eradicating such unproductive behavior is a goal that serves the best interests of the institution, the individual lab members, and the public alike. We have also noted the increasing prevalence of professional trolls who scour publications seeking a basis for making allegations – often anonymously – to publications and institutions, and who publicize their activities for their own self-interest. Although some of these scientific overseers are motivated by a desire to root out fraud and safeguard the public trust, others seek to advance their own interests by making and reporting on such allegations.

The most important lesson to be drawn from these realities is that it is always critical to examine closely the motives of the person making the allegations. Institutions must engage in a delicate balance of scrutinizing incoming concerns and applying a healthy dose of skepticism to protect the institution and its faculty from unwarranted allegations and the attendant harm. This can often be difficult, as the identity of the person initiating the complaint may be kept anonymous, sometimes with the encouragement of research misconduct rules. As a starting point in defending against such allegations, it is critical to do everything possible to learn the identity of the person or persons making the allegations, and to examine carefully whether that person has motives to make up or exaggerate such allegations that cast doubt on their credibility.

Importance of Obtaining Original Complaint

Toward this end, we always strive to get the actual allegations, as made by the complainant in their own words. Too often the institution will offer the accused scientist only a sanitized or summarized version, in the institution’s words, of the complaint. We need to see the complaint as actually made by the complainant – in their own words – in order to defend properly against it. An institution may delete portions of the complainant’s original letter, believing they are irrelevant to the central allegations. But whatever is deleted could shed light on the complainant’s credibility or reveal some reason to question that credibility. Or the allegations may be inconsistent with one another, which can cast further doubt on them. For the same reason, it is important to insist on receiving anything else the complainant writes as a follow-up to the original allegation, whether in the form of revised or supplemental allegations, briefs, or memos in support of their allegations, and transcripts of any of their interviews. The words of the complainant can be grounds for impeaching their credibility. But you have to get those statements before you can wield them properly.

Basic Defenses to Alleged Research Misconduct

In examining carefully the actual words of the complainant, we look for several other things that go to the core of allegations of research misconduct based on falsified or fabricated evidence. In such cases, the complainant is contending that the scientist either made up evidence that didn’t exist (“fabricated” results), or modified data so it no longer accurately represented the results of experiments (“falsified” results). There are at least four basic defenses to such allegations. First, can we show that the data were actually derived from the experiments in question, and accurately represented the results of those experiments? Secondly, even if not, can we show that our client was not involved in conducting the experiments in question and had no reason to doubt the validity and veracity of the data presented to him or her? Third, even if not accurate, can we show that the inaccuracy was an innocent error or accident, rather than an intentional or knowing fraud? And finally, and relatedly, can we show that the challenged data – even if false – do not affect the central findings of the experiments, and thus are immaterial. If a scientist were to choose to fabricate or falsify evidence, it makes no sense that the scientist would do so for data that were peripheral and unnecessary to the central findings they were advancing.

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