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Case Four: Accusations of Falsifying Data

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RCR Casebook: Research Misconduct

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Richard is a young Associate Professor of biochemistry at a major research university.  He is unmarried, lives with his parents, and devotes all his time to establishing his scientific career and develop his lab into a highly successful scientific enterprise that is turning out world class publications. He has remained in close touch with John, his PhD advisor, and thinks of their relationship as a warm mutual friendship.

John tells Richard that one of his former PhD students, Allan, had fallen on hard times. He’d lost his first academic appointment and was now driving a cab in the city where Richard lives. John suggests that Richard hire the down-and-out guy who is 15 years his senior and practically homeless. 

Richard hires Allen as a favor to his old mentor. He has Allan work with some research assistants in his lab. For the first six months, Allan’s work is poor, and he resents Richard’s supervision. Allan not only insists that his work is superior to that of others, he also makes unacceptable personal remarks to female graduate students. 

Falsification: manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

-45 CFR 93, 2005

Richard becomes totally fed up with Allan’s attitude and upset at himself for taking Allan in. Richard begins thinking about the steps he needs to take with Human Resources to fire Allen but feels somewhat immobilized at how he has let Allen manipulate him and get away with his poor performance.

Richard becomes more assertive, laying down the law and stating what he expects of Allan, specifically, some decent data on the experiments they’re running. In response, Allan produces a dataset that fits Richard’s hypotheses a little too perfectly. Richard questions him, and has a student gather some more data, which do not resemble Allan’s data at all.  When Richard confronts him with this discrepancy, Allan leaves the lab in a huff.

The next morning he bristles with hostility as he hands a copy of a letter to Richard, saying “You thought you could cross me, didn’t you? I just sent this.”

Allan’s letter was to the Dean of Academic Affairs. In it he claimed that Richard had required him to falsify data and that much of the data Richard had published in the last two years was falsified.

In a way, Richard is not surprised, but in another he is incredulous that Allan would do such a thing. Richard is sure the Dean will not take the accusation seriously since Allan lacks standing. Nevertheless, Richard is troubled that this alleged complaint may come down to his word against Allen’s.

How should Richard respond?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • What factors might influence the way the Dean perceives this situation? Is it important for the Dean to take such allegations seriously, however illogical they may seem?
  • What kind of documentation would be useful when dealing with a person such as Allan? When should such documentation begin?
  • At what point might Richard seek the support of a lawyer?
  • Should Richard inform others in the lab of Allan’s accusation? Should he seek their caseassistance? *