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I'm currently a Ph.D. student and I have been reading a lot about retraction of scientific papers. I understand that scientific integrity is a big issue and that we should be as honest about the scientific process as much as possible. However, I do think that there is a difference between teaching someone a lesson and publicly shaming them. For example, I follow a lot of PIs on twitter who will unabashedly put other PIs, post-docs and phds on blast for manipulating scientific data. These PIs are very successful in their fields and have lots of citations to their names. I honestly believe that everyone at some point in their life has made mistakes, which they are not proud of - including these PIs. My problem with this model of retraction is that it puts the person's name out there and they are shunned from doing research for life. PhDs and post-docs are always overworked and underpaid. The stress and poor living conditions must take a mental toll on them to force them enough to manipulate data. Is it fair to ruin their lives beyond the scientific realm (for example by putting them on websites like retraction watch where a simple google search will display their names and misconduct)?

To the stack overflow community - do you think that's fair? As a society, can we do better and if so how? I also welcome disagreements and would like to hear your perspective.

PS - I am not condoning cheating and misconduct. I think these people should be kicked out (or at the least suspended). But putting their names on the internet - isn't that taking things too far?

Thank you for reading and sharing your perspective!

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    This is not a site for debating moral questions. Yours also comes with a lot of shaky implicature, such as equating intentional fraud with "mistakes" and presuming "poor living conditions" to be the main motivation behind the former. It furthermore ignores the fact that RetractionWatch rarely makes final verdicts on allegations, but mostly gives references to sources from all sides of a conflict to the extent they are public. – darij grinberg Nov 3 at 3:35
  • I disagree. I'm not about correlating poor living conditions to intentional fraud. It's about mental exhaustion and overworking to the point where one thinks it's okay to manipulate data. As for retractionwatch - link where the tech was blamed for misconduct vs the PI. Is it fair to put her on blast while ignoring that the PI might have something to do with it as well? The website throws poor students and techs under the bus rather than looking at the bigger problem. – Abdullah Nov 3 at 3:45
  • In this case, blame the Department of Health for putting her on blast; RW is just citing. Do you think she threw no one under the bus when contaminating 32 published papers with fake data? – darij grinberg Nov 3 at 4:23
  • I'm not sure if she threw anyone else under the bus but according to RW, another PI (Michael Foster) was also aware of these fabrications but was not publicly humiliated or mentioned in the ORI (DOH) website that you linked. I am simply pointing out that RW chose to headline her name without mentioning the PI or associated faculty. I think it is analogous to singling out mechanics and pilots for airline crashes than to blame the companies that just want to churn out more planes for greater profit. – Abdullah Nov 3 at 5:11
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    Vote to close as "primarily opinion-based". (I rarely do so) This post is soliciting opinions rather than asking a question. If you want my opinion, "mental exhaustion and overworking" is not an excuse to fake data. That's it. – scaaahu Nov 3 at 6:33
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When these people had their papers published, they agreed to have their names associated with the papers. They took responsibility for the correctness of the papers' content. If the papers are correct, they get rewarded. If the papers are incorrect, they get punished. If they did not want their reputations to be tarnished, then they should not have published incorrect papers or they should not have their names associated with the papers.

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    I agree with the first part and I think it is very strong argument. However I would strictly draw a line between mistake and misconduct. Mistakes and incorrect results are part if science, no one knows the ultimate truth. Errors happen. Misconduct, steeling, forging data, telling lies is intentional, done in bad faith and not just a mistake. – Greg Nov 3 at 5:54
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    @Greg, I agree with you. However, it seems to me that the OP is arguing that "manipulating scientific data" is a "mistake." I have worded my response to be neutral: "incorrect" includes both intentional and unintentional situations. Also, I understand that papers are retracted because they are "incorrect," and again, retractions include both intentional and unintentional situations. – Joel Reyes Noche Nov 3 at 6:35
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    Thanks for the clarifications. I do not think that people are punished as much if at all for honest mistakes, but I agree, the OPs question include both situations. – Greg Nov 3 at 9:47
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Yes, it is fair. Putting out fraudulent scientific information is contaminating, damaging, and retarding to all the rest of society for an indefinite amount of time into the future. Shaming and banning those who do it is an equitable response.

We can do better by making sure that it is widely known that this is the end result. We should all communicate and publicize this fact as much as possible.

  • I appreciate your response! But in that case how do you explain papers in high profile journals that cannot be replicated? In many cases, PIs (because they are from high profile institutions) are not penalized and that to me is just as bad as fabricating an image or changing numbers. Why isn't there a website to damage their reputation? – Abdullah Nov 3 at 5:18
  • Intentionally committing forgery and unintended mistakes, measurement errors etc are totally different from moral perspective. – Greg Nov 3 at 5:57
  • @Abdullah, papers that cannot be replicated (because, for example, the experiments are too costly to conduct again) are not necessarily incorrect. – Joel Reyes Noche Nov 3 at 6:37
  • Usually, it's not that the experiments are too costly, but instead, when replicated the results are not even remotely close to what's been published. I have (along with many other phds and post-docs) experienced this myself. Funnily enough, many of those papers are highly cited and to this day are used by PIs to apply for grants. – Abdullah Nov 3 at 7:00
  • @Abdullah: A distinction between "lying" and "making mistakes" exists in any remotely reasonable moral system. A good doctor will still have a number of patients die, because medicine is not an exact science. – darij grinberg Nov 3 at 7:08

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