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We found out that a graduate student coworker was hiding materials and even throwing them away when they realised they might get caught.

With this they were not only stealing but also actively stopping others from doing experiments (materials worth 500 $ – 1000 $). When we approached them, they were first lying and gaslighting a lot (“How can you think that of me?”, etc.). The next day, when they realised that the last remaining person is also a witness, they suddenly cried, apologised and asked for forgiveness. They said it was because of personal problems.

My gut tells me that the PI deserves and needs to know this, and I have a hard time being silent on this. Other people involved want to give them a second chance.

Any thoughts what to do?

Update: Just wanted to say thank you to everyone for the answers and comments. I escalated it to the PI!

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    I don't work in the lab sciences, so I won't write an answer, but I want to emphasize that the fact that "other people involved want to give them a second chance" is definitely not born out of some sophisticated moral calculation or a highly developed sense of empathy. Rather, there is about a 100% chance that their stance is based on the fact that it causes them personal discomfort to feel responsible for potentially "ruining" someone's career. This ultimately a selfish stance which endangers everyone in the lab just because some people are too cowardly to do the unpleasant but right thing. Aug 27, 2023 at 19:42
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    @Amanda they might not want to talk with you/your colleagues about the problems, but maybe with a professional (who then is also obliged to not share information, depending on the country). Sounds like a tricky case- I agree that the PI should be informed somehow, but outright telling him/her about the other person's behaviour might not be the best way given the problems. However, this also depends on the PI...
    – Mark
    Aug 27, 2023 at 20:01
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    Also, speaking as an academic manager, about the last thing you want as a PI is everybody adopting a "snitches get stitches" attitude, problems festering until eyerybody feels like shit, and then getting thrown into a situation that has already wildly escalated out of control. Since you are talking about stealing from the lab we may already be in an "escalating out of control" situation, so high time the PI hears about it.
    – xLeitix
    Aug 28, 2023 at 11:50
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    It's not fair to delete a question after people have put effort into answering it. You could change your user name if it's not already a pseudonym. I've cleaned up some comments that had more detail than necessary to answer the question.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 30, 2023 at 16:10
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    My gut tells me that the PI deserves and needs to know this I'm flabbergasted that you're even considering not telling the PI. The PI definitely needs to know ASAP. Aug 31, 2023 at 1:29

5 Answers 5

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Escalate to your PI or the relevant ethics officer

This is quite a serious situation that involves both loss of university resources and also hampering multiple researchers from their learning/research activities. For those reasons, I recommend that you escalate this either to your PI or to the relevant ethics officer for your faculty. The matter can then proceed according to the standard university protocols for dealing with student misbehaviour, and any mitigating factors will be taken into account. You and your fellow students can make your own decisions re forgiveness while this process is dealing with the matter, but you should not seek to substitute yourselves as arbiters of the matter.

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I strongly recommend to escalate this for the following reasons:

  • If you do not escalate, this partially becomes your responsibility, too, i.e., if your supervisor or the university find out, they might consider you partially responsible for the loss of materials. This particularly applies if the behaviour continues.

  • Seriously consider how things would unfold if you do not escalate and the problems continue. If any material vanishes in the future, your coworker will automatically be the suspect and drama may ensue, which may affect further relationships in your group. If your coworker gets caught again and you escalate then, it may still only be a first offense and as mentioned in the previous point, you may get blamed too. This may even prevent other coworkers from escalating thus perpetuating the situation.

  • Even just going by your description, your coworker already got their second chance. It’s not that they stole something once and happened to get caught. They acted multiple times and only happened to be caught now.

  • Your PI may be aware of more offenses and aggravating factors than you and your colleagues. This may already be the second or third chance. Avoiding escalation at all costs is a common tactic for certain people to leave no paper trail and stay under the radar. This is exacerbated by the lying and gaslighting you describe: They apparently have the skills to avoid problems and the ethical flexibility to use them. They only performed remorse once the other tactics failed.

  • Due to several of the points above, escalating is more likely to actually end the behaviour. If your coworker is as manipulating as you depict them, they may be well aware of all this.

  • You and your colleagues might be worried about ruining your coworker’s career, and this may indeed be the effect of escalating. However, consider that there are probably fewer academic positions than people interested in them in your field. Thus if your coworker gets their next position, this will inevitably end somebody else’s academic career – just that you don’t know this other person.

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Is the person stealing, or keeping a secret stash? There's a big difference. The difference might not be obvious as both types of behaviors prevent access to materials. But there is a difference, especially in the context of a lab.

For example, in wet labs, there's a system of stock solutions vs. working solutions. The stock solution is kept on a separate area where everybody has access to it, and there is an expectation that everybody be extra careful not to contaminate or mishandle the container (e.g. leave it outside if it belongs in the fridge, expose it to light, etc.) Problems arise when the lab does not have a good system of restocking the stock solutions, or where not everybody is careful regarding cross-contamination and handling issues. In these cases, people tend to keep a secret stash of stock solution, just to make sure they have access to materials when it's time to do particular experiments. Everybody keeping a secret stash brings about a host of new problems, like added costs, solutions expiring, and more. But the problem is not that lab personnel are being evil and "stealing" the stock solution, but bad lab management.

So from your comment,

We found out that our coworker was hiding materials and even throwing them away when they realised they might get caught.

This sounds like keeping a stash, and then panicking when caught and trying to get rid of the evidence, perhaps because keeping a stash is not allowed by lab rules, while the underlying issues have not being fixed. And according to comments by the OP, the discarded materials were a few uL in an otherwise used tube. And $500-$1,000 worth of materials can fit in a 50uL microcentrifuge tube, so the amount itself is not surprising. Before going too far with the accusation, I'd make sure others are not doing the same thing.

You also need to be careful with how you present your accusations. Even if the OP has other information that would make this actual "stealing", getting caught stealing is quite an embarrassing situation, which can spill into overwhelming feelings of shame. In a lab situation, where people work together with shared resources for years at a time, it can make the perp feel overwhelmed (e.g. "everyone knows I'm a thief and treats me like one"), which can end up in serious stuff, like suicide. This is not a far-fetched idea, and it's the reason we professors, when catching a student cheating, we are careful to refer to the student as "someone who was caught cheating" as opposed to "a cheater." The first describes a reversible situation (the student can accept the consequences and stop cheating), the second describes the character, the being, of the person and is a judgement on that person.

Whatever the facts, you have to tell someone up the chain of command of the incident. Even if the lab is well managed and what this person did is inexcusable, everyone deserves a second chance. But it's not your job to administer discipline in the lab, it's your supervisor's job. They have to decide if this is an isolated incident. And if it's the first time, it needs to be put on file so that the second time counts as the second time. If it's the second, third, or fourth time, then the supervisor needs to know so that they can refer the student to the next person up the chain. It also gives a chance to the supervisor to learn about the possible underlying problems, like issues with keeping enough stock materials for everyone to do their experiments.

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    I am getting tired of the overly aggressive moderation. The moderator's comment is still here, but my reply was deleted. So was all the additional information by the OP.
    – Cheery
    Aug 30, 2023 at 22:01
  • Please see this comment for some explanation. Anyway, I deleted my (first) comment as well, since it it is more confusing than anything now (and it turns out that you were at least partially right). Also note that I am not getting involved in moderating this question since I posted at an answer.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 31, 2023 at 6:02
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    @Cheery OP was concerned that the level of detail might reveal who they are. Remember that Q and A are supposed to be useful for future visitors. Most of the comments here were getting too far in the weeds that they were no longer about improving this answer for future visitors with a similar question. Comments on StackExchange are always ephemeral, if you've got something you want to last make sure it finds space within an answer.
    – Bryan Krause
    Aug 31, 2023 at 13:41
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As others have pointed out, this is a potentially serious situation. You have no idea how deep the problem goes, how long it's been going on, or really anything beyond what you've observed. Further, how would you feel if one of your colleagues reported it when you choose not to. How would you answer the question "why didn't YOU say something?"?

Of primary importance to the PI will be issues surrounding data integrity. When the PI hears of the problem, they will probably want to confirm that all the data generated by the lab is real and confirmable. If it's not, and you do nothing to call this problem to the attention of the PI, you may find yourself in a situation that you don't want to be in.

My recommendation would be to

  • Keep personal contemporary notes on everything having to do with this issue. Maybe make sure they're time stamped. You might consider emailing your notes to yourself -- though I don't necessarily recommend creating an electronic data trail that way because email may not be confidential, and it may not be the best thing to write down accusations in a way that could turn up on somebody's desk without you knowing it.
  • Contact the PI about it in a way that you can trace. For example, send an email to the PI that says "I'd like to meet with you to discuss a delicate and potentially important situation". CC yourself. Save a copy of the email with your contemporaneous notes. This way.
  • If the PI is amenable, meet with the PI and tell them pretty much exactly what you've posted here. After the meeting, summarize it in your contemporaneous notes. If the PI is not amenable to the meeting, write that down in your contemporaneous notes (though I can't imagine that the PI would treat this that way).

This way, you're reporting an adverse situation to the immediate supervisor without skipping any organizational levels. You will not have done this in a way with potential security risks. You can trace the conversation in a convincing way if you ever need to (for example, if the PI chooses to ignore the situation and data integrity issues pop up later). After these actions, even if the PI chooses to do nothing, you've met all of your responsibilities in this situation, and can prove it.

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Forgiveness does not imply forgetting/hiding

Forgiveness is only meaningful and worthy if the person to be forgiven truly attempts to make amends for the (moral) error. In almost all cases, it is not at all enough to say "I am sorry". So a moral analysis of your situation already tells you that you cannot just ignore the whole thing. He stole, and he has to make some kind of recompense before he can be justly forgiven. And this is impossible unless the crime is reported to someone who can handle the problem. Your PI is one such person.

It is also very disturbing that others involved want to give them a second chance. For all you know, this problem may run deeper than you think, and it is not your responsibility to dig, but merely to report to the appropriate authorities. Why do I say "disturbing"? Because gaslighting in order to evade capture is really really immoral and harmful to you and other victims. If you do not do what you can to permanently stop this, there will be more victims.

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