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I started my PhD with my present supervisor a couple of years back. Her profile looked interesting. However, suddenly her previous work started receiving comments on publicly available domains (pubpeer). It appears that almost 14 of her papers that came out of her lab are under scrutiny. Moreover, one of the papers has already received a retraction.

Though none of these papers have my name in them, my concern is that the profile of my supervisor could affect my career in the long run. Is it a wise idea to switch labs before it gets too late for me? In the worst case scenario, if I continue to work under her, how badly can this affect my profile?

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    What's "almost 14"? 13? Jan 30, 2023 at 13:11
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    I don't have an answer to your very good question, but do want to say that a retraction is not the same as scientific misconduct. If there is a case of misconduct I think it would change the nature of the question. Jan 30, 2023 at 14:23
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    My reading was that there were papers under investigation, one with a retraction, and that the OP had bundled this all under the heading 'misconduct'. Some clarification would be helpful. Jan 30, 2023 at 14:48
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    Can you please be a bit more specific about the nature of the scrutiny and potential reasons for retraction/misconduct allegations. What is the bad thing that she might have done --- plagiarism? data falsification? embezzlement of reseearch funds? The answer to this question make quite a bit of difference to the advice we can give.
    – Ben
    Jan 31, 2023 at 1:28
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    Yes, there are 14 publications under scrutiny for image manipulation. There are cases where similar images are used in multiple publications. One of the papers has received retraction due to this reason.
    – BSC
    Jan 31, 2023 at 12:55

2 Answers 2

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This is a judgment call only you can make. You should think about more things than whether association with your advisor will taint your future.

Can you accurately evaluate the public criticism of her previous work? Do the complaints ring true to you? Do they seem more like professional jealousy? Will you be comfortable working with her?

If you are nearly done and the actual results in your thesis have been honestly attained and clearly not subject to any of the issues raised by the public scrutiny of your advisor's other work, then finish and move on.

If you are just beginning your own work and can imagine a better place to do it, perhaps at a loss of a year or two, then consider looking for such a place.

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Science operates on a certain level of trust. While principles like transparency about data and detailed, replicable descriptions of methodology can help build reliability into science, you cannot bypass a need for trust because even there you must trust that the data presented are the real, unaltered data, and that the methodology was actually performed as stated. There are rarely enough resources available to check and re-check every claim made.

There are a few ways in which fraud can be revealed, though. Image manipulation is one example. Other examples are statistical (ir)regularities in data that suggest manipulation or fabrication, or p-values or test statistics that are impossible given certain structural aspects of the original data, like points on an integer scale.

Most other types of fabrication are impossible to extract from the published record, though. We all just have to trust. For me, that means that I would definitely extend suspicions of someone known to have a past record far beyond their known problem papers. I cannot comprehend the current hesitancy of journals and institutions when clear fraud is present in published papers, the sort raised on PubPeer and in particular by people like Elisabeth Bik who are dedicated to uncovering discoverable fraud.

The issues these folks raise are not issues of scientific controversy or accidental errors, but in most cases are clear evidence of intentional manipulation. That is, there is no plausible explanation besides fraud. Even if the motivation is claimed to approach innocence like "well, this is representative of what we saw under the microscope, I just did it to make a nicer picture for the journal" or "yeah but the main results of the paper are from a quantitative analysis so these images we photoshopped to show the result don't actually impact the results".

You'll have to decide what level of misconduct has occurred, if any, and act accordingly. If it were me, I'd be gathering up the available evidence and walking directly to my advisor's office and confronting them. At that point, I wouldn't be concerned with our relationship: if there are credible accusations that they cannot defend in a meeting, I would not feel comfortable having a professional relationship with them.

That said, I mentioned that journals and institutions have been hesitant, especially when involving powerful or notable people (e.g., Nobel prize winners and directors of large research programs). Punishments, when present, have often been silly, like brief (1-2 year) bans on research funding, or a stern warning along with some retractions. These punishments do not fit the offenses committed. I hope this will change in the future, but in the meantime, it sadly appears that a profitable academic strategy is to have one of these fraudsters promote your work within the community of people that for some reason still trust them. Maybe you'll get hired to work with their previous advisor who trained them to cheat, or with their former student who also benefited from some deceptively beautiful papers in fancy journals. I wouldn't feel comfortable with that, but I also recognize that blowing up your current PhD training to go elsewhere is going to cause you harm in the short term (if nothing else, by some lost time) and that your actions alone will not be sufficient to change the system overnight.

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  • Image manipulation is not necessarily done to deceive; it may well have been done in a misguided attempt to communicate more clearly. And almost any scientific publication involves making decisions about which experimental results were sound and which were unsound, decisions which are usually made in good faith, but are often at least subjectively influenced by a desire to demonstrate the conclusions convincingly. As you say, it all depends on trust. Jan 31, 2023 at 12:52
  • @MichaelKay I don't buy that explanation. If you don't explain clearly what you've done to your images, you have lied about your methodology and deceived your readers, whatever excuse you use to sleep better.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 31, 2023 at 13:45

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