Friday, July 24, 2009

How to deal with scientists who cheat

What do you do when a scientists (PI, post-doc, graduate student) is caught falsifying data? Should they be expelled from the community, fired from their job, or given a slap on the wrist and rehabilitated?

This isn't an easy question as Janet Stemwedel demonstrates in Tempering justice with mercy: the question of youthful offenders in the tribe of science. I hate it when she does that. It would be so easy to conclude that cheating scientists should be drummed out of the profession but then along comes Janet to confuse me.

She's right, of course. There ought to be a range of punishments that fit the wide range of crimes and motives.


  1. Institutions whose employees (PIs, postdocs, grad students) have been caught cheating on federally funded work should be required to refund the totality of the money awarded under which the proven fraudulent work was done. Then you could just let the institution in question figure out how to deal with the cheaters. Currently, there is minimal incentive for institutions to police their employees. The only kind of motivation these institutions really understand is cash, so that's where the government needs to direct enforcement. The current "no more federal funds or consulting for x years for individuals involved" is inane: the penalty for being caught stealing is you're not allowed to steal for the next x years.

  2. the really difficult debate is when actual real contributions are mixed with cheating, case in point, gregor mendel

  3. As a scientist in private industry, I can tell you that every instance I know of where someone has cheated with data, they have been summarily discharged. I think this is the correct way to handle it.

    I'm talking about literally lying about basic, hard data; not merely "over-interpreting" it.

    There has to be zero tolerance for cheating. Honest inquiry is the bedrock of science, and there can be no compromise on that.


    So how does one deal with institutions who cheat?

  5. You mean the peas weren't really wrinkled? He just left them in the bath too long?