Over the Thanksgiving break (hope you all had a good one!) I found myself thinking about what happens when a PI commits fraud. This in part was spurred by the uptick in reported cases of fraud in science over the past few years, and in part by DrugMonkey's post on the RePAIR program for rehabilitating fraudsters. I have no idea whether this apparent uptick in fraud is due to more fraud occurring (probably) or simply more people being reported (also probably). But that's not what I was cogitating on. What I was wondering about was the fate of those directly effected by a PI committing fraud. The graduate students, postdocs and technicians in the lab. The various co-authors of publications that end up being retracted. What happens to them?
Let's make the assumption here that the PI is the sole perpetrator of fraud in a lab. One can always make the argument that the lab personnel should have been aware and/or that they should have been more diligent about checking the data that went into a publication that bears their names. I certainly preach to my own group that if their name is on a manuscript they share responsibility for what's in it. But let's face it, there are many ways a PI could fabricate data without raising people's suspicions. "Hey, look at these gels I ran while you were away at the conference last week." Despite what many would argue they should do, many junior peeps would be very reluctant to question the boss. And what if the fabrication occurs in grant proposals the lab peeps never get to see?
So what happens? Are all the lab personnel tainted? If the PI commits fraud in grant proposals and is caught, does that stigma stick to everyone in the lab? Would any of you PI's out there hire someone relatively fresh out of a lab where the PI had been found to be a fraudster? I honestly don't know what I would do were someone with that kind of tragic background to apply to join my lab. I'd like to think I'd try to be as objective as possible, but how do you weigh their accomplishments versus other applicants? What can you trust?
Even worse, one can easily imagine the careers of grad students and postdocs being absolutely destroyed when their first author publications are retracted due to the PI fabricating data. How would these folks compete in today's very competitive market when they've lost many, if not all, of their publications?
When a PI commits fraud we tend to focus on that person and what should happen to them. But instead of worrying about someone who destroyed their career by attempting to cheat, instead of trying to reform them, shouldn't we be trying to minimize the collateral damage?
We're focusing too much on the perp, too much on the funds wasted and fake science published. Don't get me wrong, that's all bad stuff. Let's just not forget about the more immediate victims.