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n the hierarchy of academic science, grad students and postdocs often get a raw deal — long hours, little pay, and short-term contracts. But the arrangement can be made even worse by unscrupulous supervisors who, in cases of fraud, all too often take their underlings down with them.

That was the experience of a young neuroscientist in Australia who was cut adrift in 2013 by her institution in the wake of a misconduct scandal involving her lab head that she had nothing to do with.

A year earlier, another graduate student in Australia put his doctoral degree in peril after questioning a paper by one of his superiors later found to have committed misconduct — after which that superior ended up returning hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants.

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And Marc Hauser, the onetime Harvard psychology researcher, resigned from the university in disgrace in 2011 — but not before trying to blame graduate student whistleblowers for his misdeeds.

Taken together, these examples — and others — point to a clear conclusion: Grad students and postdocs are frequently the scapegoats in cases of fraud, and they have little in the way of recourse in the current system.

Of course, graduate students and postdocs have been known to commit research misconduct as well. But senior faculty members are far less likely to be found guilty of misconduct than junior scientists. According to a 2004 analysis by the Office of Research Integrity, while 15 percent of full professors accused of misconduct between 1994 and 2003 were found to have transgressed, 61 percent of postdocs so accused were found guilty. We don’t know the denominators here, and it’s possible that postdocs are more venal than their superiors, but are they really four times as corrupt?

And here’s another reason the system is stacked against trainees: They’re the ones who generally end up wasting months, if not years, pursuing the poisoned research left behind by fraudsters whose full extent of misdeeds have yet to be uncovered. Ask grad students and postdocs at any institution affected by research misconduct and they’ll know of at least one young scientist who thusly poured their time and grant money into the toilet — and lost ground in the competition for scarce faculty jobs in the process.

One solution is organized labor. Unions give otherwise defenseless trainees access to lawyers, strong representation, and other tools. Perhaps it becomes more difficult to throw someone under a bus that one of their comrades built.

Another would be to give lower-rung lab workers a voice when it comes to their supervisor’s behavior — and possibly an arena to clear their names if shady business is going on. In Nature in October, Donald Kornfeld and Sandra Titus suggested, “Each year, trainees should be required to complete anonymous questionnaires evaluating their mentors, and results should be sent to funding agencies as well as to research deans.” Such evaluations, they propose, could then be used to reward good mentorship — though that would be contingent on funders and employers actually deciding to take those measures into account.

But in lieu of their superiors doing better by them, grad students and postdocs could be given a fairer shake by journals. A more transparent and prompt retraction system would help assign blame where blame is due. Too often, we’ve seen senior faculty who’ve committed misconduct try to use vague or even misleading language in retraction notices to shift or spread blame. Remember, publishers: Grad students are your editorial boards of the future. Senior professors who commit misconduct? Good riddance.

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  • Institutions may have substantial conflicts of interest when investigating their own senior researchers which could be a factor in why the full professors were found not guilty at a higher rate than low-status researchers. Misconduct findings often result from internal institutional investigations, rather than some external, disinterested 3rd party inquiry. Senior researchers may have complex funding webs with other researchers in the institution, have co-authored publications, shared lab/facility and personnel resources, sit on multiple student committees, and long personal relations. Finally, a full professor by definition has been repeatedly endorsed by colleagues and administration. A finding of misconduct against such a researcher could unravel these networks. This could shake the institution deeply, reflect poorly on the institutional administrators, and adversely affect the lives of many. If senior scientist were found not guilty, all this unpleasantness could be avoided.
    Perhaps the blame should be pinned on a disposable junior researcher such as a post-docs or a student, all that unfortunate fallout could be avoided. A pious announcement may be made that the process worked as it should, and rooted out a bad apple.

    Certainly students and early career scientists can be dodgy, especially if pressures and stakes for success are high. Institutions may only be concerned with upholding their standards of conduct. Still, internal investigation processes can seem questionable. In the Suvi Orr affair, the former student had a very public falling out with a senior researcher after non-reproducible organic chemical syntheses led to a retracted paper. The material linked above said that the university concluded she had falsified data. Orr in turn complained that she was not allowed a chance to rebut her accusers, access the investigatory materials, and that she should be judged by disinterested, qualified peers, rather than through an informal disciplinary board consisting of three undergraduate students and two faculty members . Perhaps Suvi Orr indeed pulled a fast one and got caught, but it also seems possible that she might be a reproducibility scapegoat. If a senior researcher felt besmirched by a retraction and felt the need to place blame elsewhere, a former student living far away with few current ties to the institution might be an easy mark.

    The point is, if institutions have conflicts of interests with high-status scientists, it’s hard to be confident that the low rate of guilty findings for full professors and high rate of guilty findings of post docs is fair. A disinterested 3rd party investigation would seem fairer to all.

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