RCR Casebook: Research Misconduct
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Helen, a professor of cell biology, found herself mentoring a young woman named Julie. Julie had sought work in Helen’s lab as a technician. She had to drop out of the graduate program because of health and family issues. She felt stuck in the role of lab technician and complained a lot. Even though Helen gave Julie a lot of support and encouraged her to resume her PhD work in the near future, Julie became bitter and uncooperative.
A problem arose in connection with an autoradiography process Julie used to detect proteins. Julie presented the data she had gathered using that process at one of the weekly lab meetings in which researchers, research assistants, and students bring their lab notebooks and present their data in its raw form. After the first part of her presentation, Julie said she had repeated the experiment and had gotten the same result. She showed her slide (a PowerPoint slide of a film from an autoradiogram) from Experiment 1, in which proteins were transferred to a membrane and an X-ray film then laid on top of the membrane, and then showed another slide from Experiment 2 showing the same thing.
Helen didn’t spend a lot of time looking at the raw data of her lab staff, but liked to keep track of questions she had from the presentations at lab meetings. She often followed up later, asking any questions she might have about people’s data. She had noted that the two slides Julie had shown looked more than similar—they seemed identical. After the presentation, Helen asked Julie whether she might have shown the same image twice, in error. Julie said no—she had done two separate experiments, had labeled the images correctly, and had noted that the experiments yielded the exact same result. Julie’s unable to repeat the experiments since the original membranes were accidently destroyed in the lab.
Helen was still troubled. After everyone had left the lab, Helen went to Julie’s notebook and looked at the films much more closely. Helen held the two films over each other, and they matched exactly. Clearly, this was a duplication of the same film since ordinarily, in this type of analysis, each membrane inevitably produces idiosyncratic artifacts.
Helen consulted with others who used this technique. All of the senior scientists and post docs she talked to agreed that the film looked like a duplicate. The following day, Helen called Julie into her office and said, “Julie, I’ve looked at these two films carefully, and all the imperfections in the film indicate that it is the same sample.”
To her dismay, Julie again insisted that she had done two individual experiments and obtained identical results.
What should Helen do?
Discussion Questions of the Facilitator
- Is Julie’s story believable?
- What is Helen’s role as a mentor of Julie?
- What kind of evidence is required in order to make a fair determination?
- What issues do you think are weighing on Helen’s mind as she tries to decide what to do?
- What other kinds of experts might Helen consult if she thought it possible that the identical slides came from two separate experiments?
- What would be the cost to Helen if she makes the wrong decision?
- What would be the cost to Julie if Helen makes the wrong decision?
- How important is it to science that a correct decision be made?
- How important is it to the lab personnel that a correct decision be made?
- Have you ever suspected a colleague of research misconduct? How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?