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My former PhD supervisor asked me different times to produce false results, including complete fabrication from scratch of otherwise non-existent results. I always managed to get away from that and I have never published nor submitted anything falsified. However, I still think that this must be reported, partially because he may do that again with other students. Also, the other coauthors (including professors) have never known about this.

Unfortunately, I have no written proof of his behavior, not even email, as he has always asked me in person.

How can I proceed in such a situation?

11
  • 27
    Are you currently in a safe employment situation in which he cannot hurt you?
    – Buffy
    Nov 9 '20 at 18:15
  • 22
    @Buffy OP has no proof. Without evidence, this could end up in a nasty slander/libel/<whatever it is called> suit. Evidence is required. Evidently, we like to believe OP, but of course if hearsay were acceptable, a vindicative former PhD student (not saying OP is one!) could just create endless trouble to their former supervisor. Nov 9 '20 at 18:39
  • 9
    If these allegations are indeed true, previously fabricated results are probably published somewhere. In many cases fabricated results can be distinguished from actual ones with a statistical (or other type of) analysis. There are also a few websites dedicated to this kind of fraud detection, and you could possibly enlist their help.
    – Louic
    Nov 9 '20 at 19:16
  • 6
    It would be legal to record conversations in some jurisdictions. If you want to go hard, look up what the law is in your jurisdiction. Nov 9 '20 at 19:40
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    @CaptainEmacs this isn't hearsay. Hearsay would be if somebody told OP this happened and then OP tried to turn the supervisor in. It is still a potential issue that the supervisor would be believed over the student though.
    – Kat
    Nov 10 '20 at 3:30
39

If a professor wants to falsify data now, the professor probably falsified data in the past. Look through previous publications by that professor for data that is obviously falsified.

Plagiarized images are the most commonly detected form of fabrication. Not all image reuse is falsified data, but if two publications present the same image data as if they were recorded separately, this is proof of falsification.

People who falsify data are likely to engage in other academic misconduct, such as plagiarism.

0
24

Proving anything without evidence is very tricky. You can easily find yourself in a difficult situation.

However, it is likely that you are not the only person your former supervisor approached with such requests. Your best chance is to find others who can back up your claim with their independent accounts. Find the list of the former PhD students of this supervisor and try to get in touch with them to see if they have something they want to share.

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  • 3
    Or possibly someone in an ethics department at the school can help with this?
    – Kat
    Nov 10 '20 at 18:12
  • 2
    Proving anything without evidence is impossible. Nov 11 '20 at 17:48
  • @ThomasMarkov You have a point that "proving" and "evidence" is equivalent. I guess the answer means "Getting this behaviour to be punished without evidence...". And that's not a foregone conclusion. In some situations it is relatively easy to get people punished on scant evidence. Here, it's not. So, if Dmitry would change the "Proving" into "Getting .. punished", the statement still stands and is probably more meaningful. Nov 11 '20 at 21:20
  • 1
    Witness testimony is a potent form of evidence. Nov 13 '20 at 2:52
8

You yourself say you have no proof.

Without evidence, this could end up in a nasty slander/libel/ suit. Evidence is required.

Evidently, we like to believe you. However, there is a reason proofs are required. If hearsay were acceptable, a vindicative former PhD student (not saying you are one!) could just create endless trouble to their former supervisor just by inventing accusations. Ethics always has two sides.

All you can do is to avoid working with him. If you are in a group that wishes to collaborate with him, you might consider going as far as to express your dissatisfaction with his working style. This will cost you political capital, but is better than to outright accuse them of fabrication (and it's clear that you won't work with them no matter what).

They are devious and clearly know how not to leave traces, there is very little you can do until they get caught out in some blatant mistake. If it is an important/active topic, this is likely to happen sooner or later.

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  • 6
    Your last paragraph reminds of Tolkien: "But it is said: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger."
    – Buffy
    Nov 9 '20 at 20:17
  • 3
    @Buffy Tolkien again: “Ask not the elves for advice, because they will tell you both 'yes' and 'no'.” Nov 9 '20 at 21:41
  • This does not answer the question. The question was about how to get proof, not what should be done next. Nov 9 '20 at 23:21
  • 7
    @AnonymousPhysicist You say "The question was [...] not what should be done next." - However, OP's last sentence was: "How can I proceed in such a situation?" Furthermore, my answer boils down to "wait, and, if sufficiently substantial, the fabricator will be caught." You may disagree with that advice, fair enough, but it is an answer to the question. Nov 9 '20 at 23:26
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist Yes, and that's why I added the "wait and see" comment. I think it is a response to the whole question. Not satisfactory, but I do think it applies. Many fabrications (or wishful thinking) may take decades or centuries to be unmasked (think Millikan, Galilei). Or they make a mistake at some point, and then you can pounce. Again, that can take many years. Nov 9 '20 at 23:36
6

In some locations, it is legal to record people without their permission or knowledge. In other locations, that is illegal. Recording the professor in the act of requesting falsification would give you proof.

If you accuse someone of misconduct and use secret recordings as evidence, you can expect that some people will think you did the wrong thing.

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  • 5
    Is there a reason why you split your answer into two? Nov 9 '20 at 23:28
  • 3
    @CaptainEmacs It's two unrelated answers. Nov 9 '20 at 23:30
  • 1
    While I agree that multiple answers are valid here, if seldom used, I think this particular course of action (recording) is unwise even if legal.
    – Buffy
    Nov 10 '20 at 15:28
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    @alephzero The prof will deny it, they are careful enough to not put anything down in writing. Nov 10 '20 at 17:18
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    @alephzero: ... or even worse, the professor may use this to accuse OP of suggesting serious scientific misconduct Nov 10 '20 at 20:19
6

I'd like to suggest a middle ground between the "get evidence then act" and the "stay back" answers: where I am, universities and research institutes have an ombudsperson for scientific integrity, and we even have a national Ombuds Committee for scientific integrity.

You can contact the ombudsperson (local or national) about concerns you have about scientific integrity/misconduct and they deal with this in a strictly confidential manner.

Now, while the ombuds system primarily aims at mediation in what is called questionable research practice or remediable misconduct, i.e. lighter cases of misconduct whose effects can be "healed", they can initiate an investigation into the so far only alleged case of serious misconduct (FAQ #5). And even if they'd have to conclude that they cannot (yet) initiate such an investigation based only on what you tell them, your case would be on record, and if more people file similar complaints, at some point there will be sufficient indication for the university to properly investigate the case.

This procedure will be safer for you than trying yourself to find confederates or trying to obtain proper evidence. Also, I'd suspect that the evidence you can get will likely stay thin in the sense that it likely won't be of a quality that can stand in a court case* (since we're talking serious scientific misconduct, this most likely would go to court: the professor has too much to lose to take a plea). In contrast, an investigation by the university has a much better chance to turn up the quality of evidence that is needed here.


I recommend you get away from that group ASAP

  1. In order to save your scientific integrity. As sad as it may be, not only you but science as a whole will likely profit more from you having a career as an active scientist rather than from you becoming a martyr for science.
    I may add from personal experience of a milder nature (no falsification, only bad science): colleagues from other institutes/groups did notice both the lack of quality and me not being happy with that. Later on, I was approached about collaboration by someone who explicitly said that they asked me because of the integrity I showed in handling the "bad science situation".

  2. This is a time bomb. If (when!) this is discovered, your career is likely to be seriously affected - whether you actually managed to keep your integrity or not, and even if you have been the one on whose report the investigation started.
    I think it is advisable to make extra sure that there is a complete track record of everything you've done, proving there has been no misconduct in your research.
    It may be illegal to take copies of your work data home. But it may be possible to deposit copies with the IT department (assuming your supervisor does not have access there); I'd also think about encrypting and signing these backups.
    Being able to say that the scientific ombudsoffice has a record of you filing a complaint about scientific misconduct may be another piece to saving what can be saved of your career.


*Consider: assume you had an email openly asking you to falsify data. The moment you openly act on this, your professor would fire or at least suspend you (regardless of whether your complaint is perfectly valid or whether there is a complaint by a vindictive student, the professor would have a perfect case for suspending on the basis that evidently the mutual trust in the employer-employee and professor-student relationships is destroyed). With that, you'd immediately lose access to your university email box. So either you'd find yourself without the "proof", or you'd have to forward it beforehand or print it out. But there's nothing really tamper-proof in such a forwarded email or printout. The hypothetical vindictive student could have fabricated such documents. With a bit more technical knowledge they could even place a file into their email system that looks at first glance as if it were sent by the professor.

Now, a university investigating serious misconduct by one of their employees (the professor), has far more powerful options. E.g. their IT department may be able to show that such an email was actually sent from the professor's account.

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  • "your professor would fire or at least suspend you" Professors often do not have that power. Nov 10 '20 at 23:22
  • "It may be illegal to take copies of your work data home." At a university? I do not believe you. Nov 10 '20 at 23:22
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist: "This does not answer the title question." No, it answers the bottom line question "How can I proceed in such a situation?". Nov 10 '20 at 23:29
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist: I prefer to answer the question as written down. Also, you don't have to believe me wrt. taking data home. You can check your employment contract and labour law whether it applies to you/your legislation. More important woud be that OP checks theirs. Where I am, university employees have no other rights than any other employee wrt. taking copies of work related data home. I.e., they need express permission to do so, and the person to ask is the professor/supervisor. Also, a professor has the right here to ban OP from the premises, and while you are technically correct... Nov 10 '20 at 23:32
  • 2
    ... that it would be university who cancel the contract, guess what happens if the professor tells/alleges serious misconduct on the side of OP (such as stealing data or spreading serious false allegations against their supervisor) to HR? They'll at least suspend OP's access to university ressources: office, lab, computer, IT services,... until things are cleared. Nov 10 '20 at 23:35
1

I'll address the underlying issue rather than the question in the title: you don't need to be able to prove unethical behavior to report it. An email to the department head with details of unethical behavior (what was requested, when, how many times) will at least be noted and likely end up in your advisor's permanent file. Without any evidence for the department to act on this is the most you can request (and for others in your situation who may wish for such communications to remain confidential this is the most that can be done).

In the short term, as others have said, your word against your advisors accomplishes very little. In the long term, this professor is likely to continue the misbehavior and when additional complaints or actual evidence of misbehavior arises from other students your original statement becomes a very strong piece of evidence, and shows a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident.

-3

Record him. Hidden Camera, hidden audio recorder... get enough evidence to make it stick. Once you have enough approach other students that you think you might be able to trust and seek out past students. Don't make it so obvious until you can trust them. Then find other advisors that you can trust and so on until you build a network.

You can find out if they are trust worthy by "hinting" at the idea of fabricating evidence or ethics, morality, etc and see how they respond. You don't have to mention any names at the start, just see how they respond. You can make up some stuff like "I was reading a news article where some professor was caught making up research articles to get grants....". You have to "fish" and sometimes act a bit unethical.

You definitely should pursue this because these sociopaths ruin humanity. There are far too many doing these sorts of things and none are being held accountable. Remember, several were caught. They are no better than corrupt politicians and lawyers or cops... in fact worse since they should be more intelligent.

If he is obvious and blatant it should be easy to get him... just make sure to gather enough evidence(think of it was "research"). You can also see who he has worked with in the past because chances are he was corrupted by others.

Once you have the evidence then you can figure out how to proceed from there.

Note though that if you do this it will cause problems for your career. There are lots of sociopaths out there and if you put yourself out their as the "slayer of sociopaths" it will put a target on your back. Of course you only have 3 options: Join them, ignore them and hope they don't ruin you, or slay them!

If you have real evidence of him faking shit on his research papers you can go who ever has granted him $$$ and tell him his data is fake and try to get them to make him pay the money back.

Remember, fake research destroys humanity and is anti-science. People make real life changing decisions based on data. Unfortunately it happens so much now that reality has become fantasy(it's hard to trust anything any more... think of "fake news", "deep fakes", etc). This is precisely because people are so greedy and have no morality and no one stops them.

4
  • I gave you the how. Recordings and getting others involved. How else? Magic beam guns and x-ray vision? He could get the guys papers or other peoples papers and show they are fake. He can also do all this anonymously by simply collecting the data, making a presentation that proves they are corrupt, but anonymously, and anonymously submit it to all those that could do something. But without evidence everything is moot cause nothing can come of it. Evidence gathering is the first thing to do.
    – Stretto
    Nov 10 '20 at 16:06
  • I presume the downvotes on Stretto's answer (it's -3 after my upvote) are from folks who think such surreptitious recording is illegal. It isn't. Once a crime has occurred, there's case law that shows it becomes legal to do so. Staff were stealing from a locked office, owner used a hidden camera, evidence was found acceptable. (There's also case law going the other way! It's a mixed bag.) Nov 26 '20 at 5:11
  • 1
    @MatthewElvey Most people are morons, just a fact. The thing is, illegal != unethical. There are many things illegal that are outright ethical. Also many many people do illegal things and get away with it, many of our "leaders" do this such as politicians, judges, cops, etc. Ultimately only two things should matter: Is it just/ethical/moral and am I willing to accept the consequences. Unfortunately we now live in a time where criminality is starting to be treated as a virtue and ethics a vice.
    – Stretto
    Nov 27 '20 at 1:09
  • Indeed. I wonder if intelligence and moral fiber are positively or negatively correlated. Good question for Jordan Peterson. Nov 27 '20 at 7:04

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