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I've been made aware of a situation that blatantly violates the honor code at my institution (also every institution). However it does not involve my lab, and the folks in the relevant lab are not keen to address it in any official capacity. What to do?

The Situation:

  • A graduate student proved to be unfit for the lab he worked in. After one year he transferred to a totally different department/school/program at our university--one that is not research intensive.
  • Upon leaving, my friend hounded him for the data he collected, which was part of a project she is lead on. He provided her with an excel spreadsheet. The Day 1 observations appear normal, but the subsequent days were simply a formula that changed Day 1's values by a constant and added some variance. To be clear, he actually left the formulas (which linked to the Day 1 observations) in the cells. So, clearly it's fraudulent data.
  • My friend told her PI and is not using any data collected by this RA in any of her work.
  • However, what is problematic, IMO, is that the PI and my friend have no intentions of addressing it further. I believe they are motivated by a desire to avoid the bureaucracy and the awkwardness that comes with making such an accusation. They have also pointed out that the program he is in now is totally different and does not involve real research (but still writing up reports about observed data, I would imagine).

The Question:

  • This student is still at our institution and I feel that the lack of ethical integrity he demonstrated should (must) be addressed!
  • Am I being a self-righteous, cotton-headed ninny muggins?
  • If not, what course of action should I take?
  • NB: I am not in any way associated with that lab or PI... it's a different department too. I am a 2nd year PhD student.

Thank you for any insight.

Bonus Details:

  • This was intentional fraud. The data are behavioral observations of mice, there should be original video files, and there are for Day 1 but the subsequent files are missing. When asked several times this week it was "oh yeah yeah I'll get those to you... it's just my login isn't working since I'm switching departments..." indicating that he did not actually collect the data. He did not reply "just kidding," "my bad," or "actually I did something stupid." (Sidebar: his inability to realize how obvious he is reminds me of teaching while students not-so-covertly text... I see you!)
  • The specific formula was Day1Value*1.1+(RAND(-2,2))... so while he added variance it was a naive attempt at doing so... even if he hadn't left the formulas in there it would be as clear as day.
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    Some honor codes have a provision that anyone who becomes aware of a violation of the code is obligated to report it. Does yours? – Nate Eldredge Jan 6 '17 at 4:48
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    @NateEldredge and what if it does? Are you going to suggest that OP now also implicate his friend and her PI in an honor code violation by being the one to complain when they were reluctant to? – Dan Romik Jan 6 '17 at 5:02
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    @DanRomik: Obviously it's a personal ethical decision, but if there is such a provision, then I think OP should seriously consider doing it. Aside from general principle, there's the issue that if OP knows about it and does nothing, then she herself may be liable for the consequences of an honor code violation, if and when the situation comes to light. Alternatively, OP could cite this provision as a way to pressure the friend / PI, or even the original data-falsifier, to report the violation themselves. – Nate Eldredge Jan 6 '17 at 5:11
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    @NateEldredge Your reasoning is sound, but a bit too mathematical IMO. Honor codes are not mathematical theorems - in practice, considering that it is a bit of a value judgment whether an honor code violation (or at least a serious one) even occurred (as discussed in my answer), and considering that minor honor code violations happen all the time without anyone getting too worked up, neither OP nor the friend and PI run much of a risk by not reporting the incident. I do agree about the principle being important, and that it is a personal ethical decision. – Dan Romik Jan 6 '17 at 5:17
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    @kindredChords if you don't mind, "the little Dan" would prefer to be spoken of as the actual person that he is rather than as some kind of metaphorical shoulder-demon. And to be clear, as of now "he" isn't actually making any recommendations about whether you should or should not take action - Nate and I were just discussing some of the ethical implications of the various possibilities, without yet arriving at any firm conclusions. – Dan Romik Jan 6 '17 at 11:30
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I took action... After carefully reading our honor code and the procedure for reporting misconduct I felt more compelled to act. Ultimately, I think falsifying data is one of the worst things you can do as a scientist. I just couldn't stop thinking about the new department he is in, the new advisors he has, and the new cohort he is apart of... all ignorant of this offense. If I was his new advisor, I would want to know about this. So out of respect for them and for my institution I knew I would act. The question was how?

It turns out my university has a protocol for reporting misconduct anonymously, which is great. But rather than go that route, I actually asked the PI if we could meet. PI was taken aback because, although PI knows who I am, we are not at all working together. In our meeting I simply explained that...

"I feel compelled to act in accordance with the honor code given that I am aware of the situation. But once I report the incident, you will likely be the first person they contact. So I wanted to come to you instead, out of respect, and explain how I felt regarding the situation and basically find out if you prefer to take care of it or if you prefer for me to move forward acting in my own good conscious."

PI was surprisingly kind about it, empathetic even. PI was very responsive to me explaining that I mostly felt bad for the new people this person was working with, that they were ignorant to his lack of ethical integrity--something the PI had not considered. We discussed how the PI wrote the RA a letter of rec to get into the new program, and I could see a realization on the part of the PI--specifically, that he had a responsibility to let these folks know that he no longer stands by his characterization of this student. In the end, PI assured me that we were in agreement, that taking official action through our university's research office was the appropriate next step. I apologized profusely for meddling but PI assured me I did the right thing and that I would've been equally right to have reported it as well.

So in answer to my own question, I would say that...

  • First, read your honor code carefully to find out what responsibility you have to report incidents you know about. (This is why S.Diaxo's answer is incorrect; not only is there something I can do about it, I am technically required to do something about it).
  • Figure out what your options are for reporting misconduct, it may be the case, as at my university, that you can simply report it anonymously and that they will look into it and you do not need to be involved.
  • If you feel compelled to report something, but you want to be respectful to the people it might involve, consider talking to those people directly (in a respectful and non confrontational manner). That worked for me, and I'm glad I don't need to be the one to report it.

Thanks everyone for your discussion.

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I think the place to start would be to talk to your friend about feeling uncomfortable with the position you are in. It may however be that the situation has in fact been addressed, but without the effect being visible to you.

  • Thanks for your answer, @JessicaB. I did express how I felt to both the PI and my friend (I was in her lab for lunch), and once the PI left, I was even more forward with my friend. The PI has a really...uh, interesting personality, and I can say with confidence he didn't take care of it. He does not want to deal with it--not officially, unofficially with the student, or otherwise. Still, you are correct, particularly if he has made any other mistakes with others. – kindredChords Jan 6 '17 at 10:31
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The truth is you don't have the evidence, and your friend and its PI are not being co-operative. They should have directly called him out and given him a scolding, and proceed further, using the evidence depending on the students reaction/etc.

Btw, have you seen the fraudulent data yourself?

I must say I find it weird for someone "unfit" for research to bother to 1) fake data for a lab they left, when they can just say leave me alone 2) put the effort to fake it with a minimal level of technical decency (add variance)... To me, there is something odd about the relationship between these 3 characters. It will be interesting to hear the story from the cheaters side.

  • Thanks for your answer. I did see the spreadsheet. I was in the lab when the file was received and we all looked at it. As far as the RA's abilities, it is not a lack of aptitude, it is a lack of interest and a failure to actually get things done (not uncommon in 1st year grad students who chose the wrong path). I added the exact formula to my question. I agree, this person should have just walked away, that is part of the reason his behavior is so unnerving... all the more reason it should be addressed. – kindredChords Jan 6 '17 at 23:33
  • Ok! I understand and it is really frustrating. But you are a PhD student in another department, and the people who should be reporting let this one go... so I think there isn't much you can do. – S. Diaxo Jan 8 '17 at 20:56

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