On the blog front, I have been suffering from a bit of paralysis. My intent for this blog is to focus on my field of interest: transcription, transcription regulation, and transcriptomics. However, my focus has been diffuse and scattered lately. In the past few weeks, I have been caught off guard by the number of bloggers, columnists, and science writers who have been critical of the waste, fraud, and misconduct in science.
Let me clarify: I am not taken back by the comments that have been made. Instead, I am surprised to see more scientists be open about what is happening in academic science. In the past 4-5 years, when I openly expressed my concerns about the state of academic science, I was accused of not being a team player or worse, not being competitive. Seemingly, by pointing out the failings of academic science, I was seen as someone who could no longer compete with my peers. The hesitation to be as corrupt as my competitors suggested I was not a strong scientist.
What troubles me most is how my silence enabled continued misconduct. Now I feel compelled to share my experiences and support those who dare to challenge the status quo. It is time to “reveal” the bad behavior of scientists so that collectively we can decide how to recognize and discourage underhanded behavior.
Misconduct is not a new problem, thus pointing my finger at individual scientists is hardly productive. Instead, I want to speak up to say misconduct, whether deliberate or careless, gender and ethnic disparity in career advancement and funding, as well as exploitation of students, technicians, and postdocs are all important topics that should no longer be ignored. I witnessed this behavior at every level of my training from undergraduate to project scientist. Like most trainees, I tried to steer clear of those who were blatant frauds, but eventually ended up in an area where inappropriate behavior was considered smart and competitive.
During my second postdoc, I was surprised by the number of graduate students and postdocs who could relate multiple, unique, and individual stories of scientific misconduct by their PIs, collaborators, or lab mates. Worse, I met a number of newly minted (and inbred) postdocs who supported underhanded approaches to double salaries, honorary authorship, and un-reproducible results. Their objective was to increase authorship and grant funding. I encountered the attitude that most of our work is obsolete in 5 years, so why worry about the integrity of science? Keep your head down and worry about the paycheck and the number of publications on your CV, it is the only way up the career ladder.
Initially, I was outraged. When I witnessed a postdoc who sabotaged the research going on around her, I encouraged one of the victims to speak up. To my disgust, the victim was reprimanded and later fired, for revealing a problem in the lab. The saboteur was rewarded for being competitive and given a raise. The rest of the lab was told to never speak up again, as it will not be tolerated. It was then that I felt defeated. Once again, the whistle blower was punished.
Scientific misconduct is most insidious when it is from a person of power, who controls references, publications, grant and paper reviews. As a result, we cannot put all of the responsibility on those who have been victimized. However, this power is reduced when their misconduct is revealed. As members of the scientific community, it is our responsibility to speak up for those who do not have voices. Of course, keep in mind that graduate students have a department chair, and committee members to look out for them. Technicians, undergraduates, postdocs, and senior scientists do not have this type of support under our current system, where the University has a vested interest in the PI’s career rather than the careers of those in the lab.
We need to “reclaim” our voices, expertise, and experiences. Too many postdocs leave their field of research taking with them all of the knowledge they amassed from undergrad to postdoc. As a result, experiments are never published, shared, or further explored. What a waste of time and effort. How do we capitalize on this obviously untapped source of knowledge? Macro or micro-blogging coupled with open-notebooks or mandatory raw data sharing is probably the best way to establish an area of expertise.
A little chatter about the relative levels of scientific integrity at different Universities, departments, and lab groups should be expected. I know this makes some people uncomfortable, but our silence only aids the misdeeds of others. We should have a greater fear of tarnishing our reputations than fear of not getting funding. We should have greater pride in publishing sound, reproducible data than pride in a mega-paper in Science, Nature, or Cell.
I challenge everyone who became a scientist to satisfy curiosity and to advance a particular scientific question to reclaim positions as mentors, investigators, and experts. Grant funding and academic positions are very slim for early career investigators, but that does not mean we must stop being scientists. There are other outlets, including using social media to advance a scientific question. We may not have the means to perform experimentation, but we can read, evaluate, and question the published work of those in our fields. Ultimately, to blog, tweet, and comment our critiques of the work is the best type of peer review, as it gives us the opportunity to have on-going conversations about the science. In doing so, we will reveal who among the authors understood the experimentation and experimental question from those who were mere middle-managers, assembling the story. Our voices are the strongest tools we have to work against the rise in scientific fluff, particularly un-reproducible or highly improbable research.