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My department head is manipulating data in his research papers and skillfully alters plagiarized text to avoid detection. I found this out while working with him on a journal article. I politely confronted him but he did not concede and I backed off from that paper. Later other professors confirmed that most of his papers are bogus and results are fabricated.

He mentioned once that the reason for choosing nanotechnology (which he is not familiar with) is that there is very little literature available and few experts to review the paper. He gets through the review process by using a plethora of statistical analysis results (with fabricated data) to support his claim and gets through (some) editors by using fancy terms like neural network and fuzzy logic. The irony is that he does not even know the underlying theory of whatever analysis he is doing. How do I know this? I uttered a few doubts and the responses were extremely poor. He uses Minitab and Matlab tools to get things done. He once jokingly told me that he gets a paper ready overnight. Maybe it was not a joke after all.

Reporting to the management is useless as they won’t listen to me. I cannot challenge his paper, because I barely know anything in nanotechnology (neither does he). Editors won’t take me seriously since he has considerable reputation due to articles in high impact journals. So what should I do? I could not tolerate his insanity and literature pollution.

[Edit 1] More info: I am about to graduate and leave the department for good. The paper in which I was involved was shelved because sometime later I pointed out to him that the hypothesis is fundamentally wrong. I still have the original manuscript he mailed to me from his unofficial mail id. Institutional routes are closed, I tried complaining about his poor lecture quality once (anonymously) and it backfired for the entire class. He has 15 years of experience, 20+ journal article and numerous conference papers. I don't stand a chance against him.

Update I will try to report this issue to retraction watch or through any other means possible. Still it is not possible to disprove his claims without repeating the experiment. Will update here, if there is any progress on this issue.

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    I think the first thing you need to do is figure out whether he is actually fabricating things or whether he is just joking. You not being an expert yourself seems like it is difficult for you to be sure. This step will require involving an actual expert in the field. Afterwards, I would in your case take a step back and see how things develop, because if a famous professor goes down as having fabricated data systematically, there is usually considerable splash damage. You don't even want to be seen near that guy then. – xLeitix Nov 6 '14 at 16:35
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    Step 1 would be to change your user name and profile picture. Anonymity is your friend here due to the issue that is being presented. – Compass Nov 6 '14 at 16:39
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    Get out. Move to a different department, or another university. If your accusations are correct, it's only a matter of time before it gets out, and then your department's reputation will go down the toilet. – JeffE Nov 6 '14 at 16:48
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    I suggest contacting retractionwatch.com, which operate a well-known blog that deals with scientific fraud. – Bitwise Nov 6 '14 at 17:13
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    @xLeitix I saw him constructing the paper in an hour with the data I provided (by copy pasting). He modified data to bring R^2 value up to 0.9 from 0.5 or 0.6, again right in front of me and this not correct by any means. He asked me to do some formatting before sending it to editor. I resisted and backed off. – atree Nov 6 '14 at 17:19
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Your backing off reaction is the appropriate one: cease any form of association with him right away.

The description of your first-hand witnessing of him fabricating data is more than enough to ascertain his academic dishonesty. You don't need to know about nanotechnology to know that manually modifying data to make it pass a statistical test is idiotic and fraudulent. Also, experts in that field will assume the data are real when conducting peer review, so it's not something they can easily detect without repeating the (alleged) experiments.

His 'results' are unwanted. By publishing bogus science he makes people lose time and money, he's robbing legitimate researchers of their funding, he is adding noise that masks the signal. If you can afford to report his behavior please, do it. Depending on where this story takes place, you might lose a variable number of feathers in his striking back, but at the end of the day he is the one who is wrong.

Taking direct action to publicly expose his fraudulent behavior is risky for you, especially since he is your hierarchical superior. But, when he will get caught (because he will), if it is apparent that you were aware of his wrongdoings and still accepted co-authorship or credit for his publications, his bad reputation is going to stain your career. If you fail to prove your claim, it's your career that will be at risk. So, proceed with caution. Note that it is ethically perfectly fine to report scientific wrongdoings anonymously.

  • Make sure that all institutional reporting routes are inefficient before bringing the issue to another level. It is not clear in your post if you actually tried or if you just assume 'they won't listen to you'.

  • Since you provided the content of at least one paper, and know about its fake nature, if he submits the paper despite your protests, notifying the editor is a thing you could do. Editors will take you very seriously in reputable journals.

  • You can also take part (anonymously if relevant) in a post-publication comment on his papers, on websites like pubpeer.com or retractionwatch.com.

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    I feel like the author needs to do at least something. Saying that the guy will be caught eventually is likely, but until then, the person will continue actively harming the field of study. – Compass Nov 6 '14 at 18:21
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    "But, when he will get caught (because he will)," Says who? – Faheem Mitha Nov 6 '14 at 18:53
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    @FaheemMitha I'm sure there are many unnoticed cases of isolated data nudging, but a systematic, naive fraud like the one described by OP is bound to fail. – Cape Code Nov 6 '14 at 19:02
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    Also remember that the guy will never be caught, if everybody relies on him being caught eventually. Somebody needs to make the first step. – Wrzlprmft Nov 7 '14 at 9:11
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    I feel like the author needs to do at least something. — The author is a student; his first priority is getting his degree and getting out. Starting a fight with his department head, no matter how ethically justified, is not in his best interest. Leave this one to more senior colleagues. – JeffE Nov 7 '14 at 14:54
10

As it is unethical behavior by your direct supervisor I would recommend that you seek outside legal council. These things can get very nasty, and can damage your career, having pre-briefed council on call when the administration finally goes to town will be a huge benefit to you.

Legal council can also help you write your correspondence with the University administration in a way that will force action against the guilty instead of you the whistle-blower (or at least make it more likely). In any correspondence do not mention the fact that you have retained legal council, until forced to do so. At no point should you discuss matter verbally and all your responses to any written letter/e-mail should be vetted by your lawyer.

Whistle blowers are very unpopular for management as it shows that they have not been paying attention (or allowed fraud to occur). It is, unfortunately, likely they will come down on you before they come down on a professor.

The option of quietly leaving is something you should strongly consider.

Also discuss with your lawyer, if you can/should report, the professor to any granting bodies that funded his/her research. Potentially via the lawyer, leaving your own name officially out of it as much as possible.

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I had a similar experience. As you say, it is an open secret that the professor is a problem - I once had a formal meeting about this with one of the other heads of department, who said "I think he should be sacked", but nothing ever came of it. I've also heard he has some powerful friend high up in the university. A few years ago, some of the other academics allegedly complained about him and suggested the university drop him, but instead of being reprimanded he was instead promoted from "Reader" to "Professor" (he doesn't even have a PhD).

It still irks me that someone can get a very well paid and respected job at a top university whilst being fundamentally clueless about science and the technology that they are supposed to be teaching and researching.

"I tried complaining about his poor lecture quality once (anonymously) and it backfired for the entire class" If we are talking about the same person then this is not new. Other students have complained about his poor lecturing, dating back 15+ years now. His "trick" was to try and come up with some idea for a course that sounded cool but left everything on the shoulders of the students. Typically this involves the idea of students coming up with their own project idea based on some vague tech (dev board) and then doing a bunch of programming with either zero lectures, or lectures completely devoid of any meaningful content.

It is very hard to do something about the fundamental issue. If you have honesty and integrity, then you will feel like you should do something, but there is a systemic problem here, and, quite honestly, it should not be down to a lone student taking this on. This isn't your problem, it's an institutional problem, and the best you can do is to find a new professor as soon as possible. Several of his students have walked away.

Later in life, I had the unfortunate coincidence of interviewing for a research position where the lead researcher had been a personal friend of one of the students who did walk away. When he asked who my supervisor was, the interview went silent then the interviewer shook his head and said simply "I know of him. He is a terrible researcher." How could one justify spending several years being the student of a person with such poor reputation, and yet still claim to be a capable, top class researcher yourself? It is hard, and it is ultimately self defeating. There are far better options in life. Walk away.

"He has 15 years of experience, 20+ journal article and numerous conference papers. I don't stand a chance against him." - This is the fundamental problem, and there is no solution. As a student, the balance of power is unfairly against you. You can't just accuse a respected person of producing useless research, or of abusing their position. It beggars belief that there is no effective oversight on these matters, and that universities are not more proactive in policing their workforce - but that's the way it is - academic institutions have historically given academics a great deal of freedom, and their position in society was respected. I honestly don't know how the situation can be fixed, other than by waiting for the professor to retire.

"he does not even know the underlying theory.. I uttered a few doubts and the responses were extremely poor." - This echoes the exact sentiments of a quote I heard from an irate MSc student - "Have you ever tried to pin him down on any details? He doesn't know anything!" I wish I had listened to his advice at the time: Walk away. Life is too short to waste fighting battles that you can't win.

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Absolutely get out and far away, but perhaps then you could take action. If you were the only one who has or saw the original data, even keeping it anonymous, he may figure out who reported him. Aside from Retraction Watch, COPE has some interesting cases to read through. This is an organization that many major journals are members of, which deals with these sorts of ethical issues. Many of the cases they describe involve anonymous reports and it might be helpful to read through them and see what the process would like were you to contact one of the journals that published his fraudulent work.

If you do anonymously contact the journal, be sure they agree to a course of action (they will not tell the author where the information came from, they will only reveal certain information, etc.) that protects you. I'm not sure legally what they can and can't agree to, but have them tell you this before you reveal who the fraudulent author is.

I would absolutely not go through your University's channels, but maybe this is too cynical. Although this is logical and 'fair', there is a chance they will want to hide the fraud to protect their reputation, which might mean discrediting you. Just go straight to the outside parties (anonymously and after graduating and getting a job etc.) and let them work backwards to the university. A publisher (as you will see reading COPE cases, has much more to lose by not confronting fraud and they take it very seriously!

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Keep low, you are young and have no power.
Graduate Then put queries on PubPeer - make sure the query does not allow you to be traced. By this I don't mean anonymity, because PubPeer guarantees that, even if you log in, but in terms of the actual query. For example, if he is R hacking his data, then an analysis of a series of papers will reveal a statistically impossible distribution of R values. Engage allies - people you may not know, but who are on the right side - but do this with care, because one can get bad surprises sometimes. Putting things right takes time, what may appear to be a lifetime to you and bear that in mind, do not expect a "result" in months or a year.

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Publish an attempted replication of his work that demonstrates that his analyses and data are not reliable.

If you can show definitively that the work is bogus by providing reproducible analyses and release your data publicly for others to verify, your work will trump his, and you can launch a career off of this.

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    Why would you waste your time to prove someone is a sham when you could be doing real research? – Octopus Nov 6 '14 at 23:48
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    This would be a very difficult, uphill battle against a person who has more experience, and is entrenched - they would have every reason to fight you tooth and nail if you attempted to do this, and also a large head start. – user2813274 Nov 7 '14 at 3:46
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    @user2813274 Fully agree. Especially considering how hard to publish a paper if the central message is that something doesnt work (opposed to Heureka type papers). Also, I never heard of any disciplinary action against any researcher if intentional misconduct were not proved. Being considered less reliable because someone could not reproduce his data - it has no substantial impact on any level, will not stop him doing research the same way for years and years . – Greg Nov 7 '14 at 16:42
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    @Octopus It is real research to show that a previous body of work that is accepted as fact does not actually match observations. For example, there is a lot of published research showing that GMOs have no effects on health. That research is mostly done to prove that claims to the contrary are false. – Akka Demic Nov 7 '14 at 18:38
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    @user2813274 "This would be a very difficult, uphill battle against a person who has more experience, and is entrenched" - Experience and time on the market doesn't trump data. – Akka Demic Nov 7 '14 at 18:41

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