What is a PI responsible for?

Some further thoughts on all this STAP fraud, after reading posts and comments at Drugmonkey and Michael Eisen.

Faking data and committing fraud is the cardinal sin of science. It’s a really big deal, and I honestly think ORI is toothless when it comes to consequences (oh you robbed a bank? that’s cool, keep it, but we’re going to pay someone to follow you around and make sure you don’t rob another one for 5 whole years). Fraud occurs for many reasons, but I think that in many (or even most, it’s impossible to say, as I’m sure most fraud is never detected) cases, senior authors and co-authors can be mostly blameless. If someone is working in your lab and gives you convincing but fake results, it can be extremely hard to detect. Even harder if they are giving you a subset of real results, just those that support a hypothesis, for example. There is a lot of trust placed in people who are under enormous stress and career pressure. It’s bound to happen at some frequency.

On the other hand, it is clear from the online discussion (and the real life of any science trainee), that there are many labs in which cheating is enabled by a system of rewards and expectations, created by the PI, that certain results are what is necessary for praise and career advancement. Data fakers are still to blame, but obviously there is some additional culpability here.

Zooming out even further, the media “witch hunts” that result from high-profile fraud cases result from the absurdity of the hype that surrounds science in the first place. If journals, institutions, and the media (and we have to admit it, us scientists too) didn’t drive this machine of fame, celebrity all the attendant dishonest bullshit that comes with it, perhaps there wouldn’t be a need for such vicious recrimination when someone we just anointed a Great Science Hero turns out to be a flawed person. Despite university press releases, the “News” arm of the glamour mags, and the growing annual cycle of Cash Prizes and Top 10 Lists, science almost never happens in stunning leaps of individual genius, and progress never depends on any one person or lab.

Fraud–faking science results–should be punished. Jobs and grants are zero sum–everyone who gets one by cheating stole from an honest scientist (or a less able cheater, I guess). It should probably end your research career. Let’s not pretend that’s a “witch hunt” or a disproportionate response. We think doping athletes should be banned, embezzling bankers should be fired and lose their licenses. What’s the difference? Why should we bother or care about “rehabilitating” Marc Hauser? He had a chance to contribute and blew it, there are many, many others deserving of that chance.

But science is done in teams. If the faker is a trainee, it’s harder to tease apart what happened, and questions inevitably arise. Mistakes and negligence should have consequences too, but these are complicated: the PI and co-authors are somewhere along a spectrum of being innocent victims of the fraudster, of having been negligent in oversight, or having actively contributed through (non-fraudulent) bad leadership or research practices. However, anyone who reads Retraction Watch knows that except in cases where it is proven that the PI actively participated in the fraud, there are essentially no career or funding consequences for them. They may take a credibility hit for a while. Is that bad? I don’t know.

For me, it raises questions about our expectations of a PI. As I wrote, almost everything said about Obokata should’ve have raised red flags instead of garnering praise. Can someone running two labs and holding an administrative position, managing perhaps 20+ scientists and staff even fulfill the minimal expectations we have for 1) Instilling the right system of values and incentives that will minimize the temptation to commit fraud; 2) Be familiar enough with the people, experiments, and data in their lab(s!) to have a fair shot at noticing when something might be amiss?

These are management roles that, in my view, cannot be delegated if 1) You are the grant holder and 2) Your name is last on the paper. The inevitable accumulation of funds and trainees that comes from the kind of reward system we have—grants beget grants in a positive feedback loop—leads to very large labs that become the epicenters of disciplines and subfields. But is it even plausible that these PIs are competently doing their jobs and meeting their oversight responsibilities?

7 Comments on “What is a PI responsible for?”

  1. The timing of this post is perhaps a bit unfortunate. It doesn’t seem right to harp on the lack of consequences for PI’s just two days after Obokata’s supervisor, Yoshiki Sasai, committed suicide. As his example shows, the consequences for a PI are actually very serious, even if they are not legally mandated.

  2. rxnm says:

    Hi Bill,

    See previous post. I think this is a good time to have this conversation. Sasai’s self-imposed “consequences” were obviously far out of scale of anything reasonable. We will never know what was in his mind. It sounds like he was exonerated of fraud, but bore some responsibility in not properly overseeing the work. Absent the insane hype surrounding this work and the media frenzy of recrimination surrounding the problems (a direct result of the initial hype), it is hard to imagine this not blowing over for him. Fraud is common, and usually the PI is fine if they are not the faker, but suicide as a response is exceedingly rare.

    The difference here was the scale of the hype. The lesson is not about how we handle fraud, it is just yet another reason to discourage and ignore sensationalistic media coverage, starting with the absurd coverage of STAP and the people involved back when it was going to change the stem cell field forever.

    Most fraud committed by trainees does not have long term consequences for the PI, and that’s probably fine, but I think when we ask why trainee fraud happens it is fair to ask about the PIs role. From what I’ve heard of the investigation, it sounds like Sasai may have been somewhere between “innocent victim” of Obokata but also somewhat negligent in oversight of her work. Negligence is not fraud, but it is a serious mistake. This seems to be a common outcome, and the PIs continue on, hopefully having learned to be more careful. It sounds like Sasai might have been a position where it was literally impossible for him to have the time to properly oversee this work, and he made the mistake of substituting his own judgement for trust in Obokata. I think that’s a problem that is common in high profile fields because of the size and structure of many labs and institutes.

  3. geranium says:

    Yes to the scrutiny of lab culture, and yes to criticism of escalating glamour and competition.

    But I’m pretty reluctant to suspect bad management or sloppy ethics (of a PI) based on fraud (by a labmember).

    In cases where cheating is rare (academic research, I hope), I think those people who do cheat might do it even if the PI is supportive in all the right ways. A PI can only control the environment so much, after all… the larger picture is that jobs are tight, for example. And even if they weren’t, exciting findings get attention.

    I can easily imagine that in a lab culture of high pressure and poor support, etc., etc., scientific fraud is much more likely to happen. So I do think it’s fair to ask the question–but I’m really wary of how it’s asked, because it’s easy to make it look like a pointing finger.

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  5. JGB says:

    I agree that misconduct should be punished fairly severely. I am hesitant however on the outright ban for the simple reason that anytime the stakes get that high, it creates even more perverse incentives for worse behavior. i.e. Given the time investment a complete loss of career overnight is going to fit the emotional definition of nothing left to lose for a lot of people. Suicide is only one of a variety of nasty sorts of things people will do when backed into an extreme corner. One strategy to increase the chances of catching people could be as straightforward as paying people for purely replication work and other kinds of service (database curation and I’m sure there are others). There are plenty of biologists in general

  6. brembs says:

    I’m just catching up now…
    There is another kind of responsibility which I always bring up in such discussions: the responsibility of people like the boss of Jan-Hendrik Schoen. He was so happy that his postdoc would be churning out Nature and Science papers every other week (no less!) for months on end, he ran around praising him (and of course, by extension, himself) as the youngest Nobel laureate in history.

    There are cases of fraud, where even if the fraud is done very well, one can make a very good argument,. that the PI HAS to become suspicious. When results are too good to be true, they all too often are. In such cases, PIs ought to keep a record of what they have done to safeguard the veracity of the data. If they can’t show that, they shouldn’t be on the paper.

  7. DJMH says:

    Completely agree that there should be no second acts in science, if the first act was ended by fraud. What, like there aren’t enough thoughtful and honest scientists out there to soak up those leftover grant dollars??

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