Sabotage in Science

Scientists are supposedly objective but a recent case in Michigan USA sheds a worrying light on a dark reality of research. A former post-doctoral researcher at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan has been found guilty of changing the experimental results of a PhD student who worked in the same lab; the charge was malicious destruction of personal property, which in the USA usually means vandalism. The postdoc claims his otherwise inexplicable actions stemmed from internal pressures and that he intended to slow down the student’s work (Maher, B. 2010. Sabotage. Nature, v. 467, p. 516-518). At first the student believed that she was making mistakes herself, but then realised some unknown person had swapped labels on her samples. When she aired her suspicions she was told she was being paranoid and going through a bad patch in her studies. She persisted despite such resistance, until her supervisor alerted the university’s security officers. They launched an investigation into the student herself! After two interrogations and a lie-detector test, the university police installed cameras in the lab, which led to the culprit being caught red-handed.

Research misconduct is notoriously difficult to apprehend, institutional authorities often balk at clear evidence and end up in what amounts to a whitewash to protect the institution’s integrity. Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh UK has made a study of malpractice in science, ranging from this kind of willful derailing of a research project to withholding information and vindictive reviews that are rarely considered misconduct. She has found that up to 30% of scientists admit (anonymously) to lesser but still baleful issues, and a staggering 70% say they have witnessed deliberate damage to fellow researchers. This malice that dare not speak its name, even were it to be rarer than Famelli has discovered, is a blight that should be recognised by institutional authorities rather than ignored or actually turned against the complainants.

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