Science from the bottom looking up

Janet Stemwedel (of Adventures in Ethics and Science) has been following the aetosaur scandal, and has followed up with two posts looking for suggestions about how junior scientists and graduate students should respond to unethical behavior by their senior colleagues.

In most senses, it is not fair to generalize about ethical problems across different sciences. The fundamental issues of money, data access, learning curve, and potential for new approaches are too different: Paleoanthropology poses its own ethical dilemmas that would never occur in chemistry, for example.

But in many ways, the students in different disciplines share much more with each other than the professionals do -- and junior scientists share more than senior scientists do. Each discipline is a guild with its own political structure and barriers to advancement, but from the bottom looking up they all look pretty similar.

The first of Stemwedel's posts, Ask an ethicist: How can I stand up to misbehavior in my field? begins with an anecdote and profers a bevy of suggestions of how to respond. But the interesting thing about these posts are the comments. I don't generally dive into people's comment sections to link, but I want to give some flavor of the discussion and why it's worth reading.

Commenter Will S. brings some thoughts about students:

Almost all of the scoops and thefts and other violations I experienced victimized a student. Students catch it twice in [Vertebrate Paleontology] because limited funding puts them at the mercy of a large number of professors at school while a deep gulf between "student" and "professional" status marginalizes them among the professional community. When student work is scooped, they're given the options to quit or start over--even when, as in the several cases I experienced, the scooping academic was invited in by one or more members of the student's committee. Student work makes up a giant proprotion of presentations and posters at VP conferences, and since student work is regarded (by some more than others) as a kind of gray literature, it is fair game for intellectually bankrupt academics; students even rip off other students in this environment. Student papers pass through the publication process more slowly than others do, and usually involve more reviewers, lending themselves to cherry picking; I'm not alone, I'm sure, in walking into a conference and hearing my ideas recited verbatim by someone who had just reviewed my manuscript for Journal X.

Taking the comments together, they all illustrate one general observation: The really offensive cases of plagiarism, data theft, and other bad behavior are carried out by people who already are masters of the strategies junior people can use for redress, and who therefore are well situated to game the system in order to get away with it. This includes recruiting their own departments' and universities' administrative apparatus in their support, using their positions on editorial boards to quash challenges, and using their professional network contacts against their would-be accusers.

In this context, all the platitudes and legalistic advice offered by administrators really amounts to CYA window-dressing. Advisors know this, and many suggest sub rosa that students accommodate themselves to theft -- often sharing their own stories of being jerked over, once upon a time.

So the second post, Senior scientists, give us some good news! tries to draw out senior people who have helped junior colleagues in such situations. Unfortunately, Stemwedel doesn't find many. The bottom line appears to be that genuine abuses occur and that whistle-blowing is rarely rewarded and always damaging to an individual's career.

Late in the discussion, commenter CC throws some water on the fire, which probably should serve as a disclaimer to the whole discussion:

I really hope that no one makes a decision about what field to go into based on a handful of anecdotes from commenters with a range of axes to grind and no knowledge of other fields.

A good point, since this is a highly self-selected group of commenters, each writing from his or her own distinct perspective.

Anyway, in any individual case it is hard to distinguish between a student holding a grudge after a misunderstanding about his role in a research project, and a senior scientist really abusing his position and influence by stealing ideas. Most outsiders will judge such cases according to the reputations of the people involved, and unfortunately for students, they don't have one yet. So outsiders will judge according to what they know about other students, which is usually not especially positive.

I'm not sure the suggestion of "record-keeping" will help very much, since most students and junior scientists don't enter into collaborations with written contracts about who will take on what responsibilities and how credit will be shared. One of the appealing aspects of science is that it is an area where many deals are still sealed by a handshake -- but this means that disagreements may be hard or impossible to adjudicate.

That's problem enough, but in science, peer judgment occurs anonymously and secretly -- not only in journal reviews, but also in tenure and promotion reviews. This situation means that a junior scientist would be near-insane to make waves.

Happily, in most fields there is more work to do than there are people to do it. Good ideas come in limited quantities, and it is always tempting to borrow them. Still, if data are easy to find, then a young person can apply someone else's ideas on a new set of observations. That's what we call "normal science."

But in some fields, the data are also highly limited. Conflicts arise when both ideas and the opportunities to apply them are at a premium. If money is also limited, that introduces an even worse problem -- since the competition for money depends on past results. Vertebrate paleontology is such a field. Paleoanthropology is another.

I think that strong abuses, such as plagiarism and stealing research results, are rare in paleoanthropology. However, a large number of students are deterred from the field, or have their careers stopped before they really begin, because the system is obviously not designed to protect students from such abuses.

One thing that paleoanthropology has going in its favor is that the journals have developed a healthy tolerance for repetition. After all, if the number of ideas is limited, and the number of specimens are limited, then we are bound to see a lot of the same studies replicated on the same specimens -- albeit with minor differences in method. How many studies have there been on the cranial diversity of Lower Pleistocene humans? Fifty?

It's a symptom of a field in which students are given nothing better to do than to replicate twenty-year-old research. This helps to protect them -- at least they aren't competing with established scientists for access to new specimens -- but it protects the interests of the established scientists also. Money is always going to be tight, and everything tends to concentrate it in the hands of a few.

If I were starting out in the field today, I'd think long and hard about what kinds of data may be easily accessed or are freely available. It's enough to risk failure -- but the risk of success coupled with theft of results or denial of access is really too much to bear.