Sabotaging experiments and flat tires.

This week’s Science magazine carried a story (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24604172) about a postdoctoral fellow at Yale whose experiments were sabotaged by her fellow worker. As usual, there was some drama associated with the entire process of fault-finding and blames being thrown around but one interesting thing surfaced that this event was considered to be a laboratory prank, not a serious offense. The article goes-

“The complex case raises a host of questions about how to deal with sabotage, a type of misbehavior that some scientists believe is more common than the few known cases suggest. One key point of debate is whether ruining someone’s experiments should fall under the definition of research misconduct, which is usually restricted to fabricating or falsifying data and plagiarism. Some experts argue that wrecking experiments, while terrible, is more akin to slashing a fellow researcher’s tires than to making up data.”

Seriously? Slashing a tire is just that- it is a display of displeasure at a person or his/her act or a series of acts. Even then its validity as a retribution is only in the mind of the perpetrator. Sabotaging an experiment is much more than that. The saboteur wants not only to demonstrate displeasure but also goes to a length of discrediting the targeted scientist’s work. It is far more sinister. It erodes the credibility of the victim and that is what the goal of sabotaging a scientific experiment is. There are ‘legal’ questions being attached to it now:

“Whether sabotage belongs under ORI’s purview is questionable, Rasmussen says. A long and contentious debate took place in the 1990s over whether the U.S. federal definition of research misconduct should include anything beyond fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, commonly referred to as FFP. Some argued that other types of bad behavior, such as sexual harassment or vandalism, could constitute research misconduct as well; others said that would open the floodgates to all kind of accusations, and that such misdeeds could be dealt with through other mechanisms.”

It does not matter whether sabotage comes under the ORI’s purview. The decency of a mentor and the institution demands that the incident should be reported to the authorities. Essentially, the fear among the faculty members is that they would be considered to be lousy managers to let it happen. They take it too personally and distort the facts and penalize the victims. In doing so, they undermine their own credibility and promote a dishonest view of the scientific world.

In the era of print news this ploy of obfuscation could have worked for the lab managers and university authorities. But in an era of Facebook, Twitter and lightening fast worldwide communication, such approach may backfire and undermine the credibility of the scientific researchers in general. Beyond petty bickering, there is no place for egregious acts of sabotaging anyone’s experiments and such people should be quickly removed from the lab before they do bigger damage to the core of the scientific values.

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2 thoughts on “Sabotaging experiments and flat tires.

  1. It happened to me when doing my PhD (chemistry) at a prestigious UK university in the 1980s. Things kept going wrong whenever my back was turned and I was publicly ridiculed, humiliated and branded incompetent. My supervisor was dismissive and unsympathetic and, despite ample circumstantial evidence and strange coincidences all pointing to one individual (who had already been given a warning after confessing to sabotaging a nmr spectrometer), no effort was made to identify the perpetrator. I did get my PhD, but was put right off the idea of an academic career after what happened, the perpetrator was never caught thereby denying me justice, and the experience haunts me still.

    • Steve, thank you for sharing your story. It is unfortunate that supervisors turn away from obvious problems only because of their vested interests. Such behavior, either of saboteurs or their protectors, should not be condoned. Besides being a criminal act, it also sets a wrong example.

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