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EthicsCaseStudyForm edit

Title Data Torturing
Long Title Data Torturing
Contributor/Contact John Banja, PhD (jbanja@emory.edu)
Contributor Details John Banja, PhD
Director, Section on Ethics in Research
Atlanta Clinical and Translational Science Institute
Emory University
Atlanta, GA 30322
CTSA Emory
Case Study Provided Some years ago I was completing my undergraduate degree and was working in Dr. Allen’s lab. I very much wanted to go on to graduate school and was looking to my project—a fairly sophisticated one I was doing with a post-doc—to get me admitted to the graduate program I had in mind. I was also counting on Dr. Allen, who was pretty well known in the field, to write me a nice letter of recommendation.

Unfortunately, my project yielded no significant data. I wasn’t terribly bothered by this as I felt the results were still reportable—maybe even, given the nature of the research, “significant” in a nonstatistical way. Dr. Allen, however, could not have disagreed more.

He said I would have to write a report on this project and that he wouldn’t have a report coming out of his lab with no statistically significant findings. He told me to go on a “fishing expedition” and perform a bunch of ad hoc analyses in the hopes of finding some correlations that were statistically significant. Because I was taking a statistics course at the same time, I knew what Dr. Allen was asking me to do was experimentally unsound and, therefore, unethical.

What a dilemma: I needed to turn in the report to graduate, and I needed Dr. Allen’s letter of recommendation. If I questioned him on it, I was afraid he’d throw me out of his lab. I talked to my post-doc for advice, and she agreed that the fishing expedition, also termed “data torturing,” was unsound. But she wouldn’t go to Dr. Allen on my behalf.

So, I decided not to make any waves. I managed to find a few correlations that were statistically significant, wrote my report, and graduated with a letter of recommendation from Dr. Allen. I rationalized the whole thing by thinking, “Who was I to be questioning someone who had been doing research for so many more years than I?” Also, Dr. Allen never struck me as a devious person. I strongly suspect he didn’t think there was anything wrong with the fishing expedition. Of course, the primary reason I went along was fear of retaliation and damage to my career prospects. I’d imagine there are many individuals who can relate stories similar to mine. What should institutions do to prevent this kind of thing from happening?
Data Acquisition, Management, Sharing and Ownership Topics
Variations in lab practices—legitimate and illegitimate variations,
Data reporting
Mentor and Trainee Responsibilities Topics No mentor and trainee responsibilities topics
Publication Practices and Responsible Authorship Topics No publication practices and responsible authorship topics
Peer Review Topics No peer review topics
Collaborative Science Topics No collaborative science topics
Research Misconduct Topics No research misconduct topics
Conflicts of Interest, Law and Policy Topics No conflicts of interest_law_and policy topics
Human Subjects No human subjects

URL http://www.actsi.org/areas/erks/ethics/index.html
RCR Keyword Post-doc
Other RCR Keywords Damage to Career Prospects; Data; Data Torturing; Fear of Retaliation; Graduate School; Lab; Letter of Recommendation; Statistically Significant; Undergraduate Degree; Write a Report
Type of Case

Source for Topic Areas Du Bois, J., & Dueker, J. (2009). Teaching and Assessing the Responsible Conduct of Research: A Delphi Consensus Panel Report. Journal of Research Administration, 40(1), 49-70.


Topic revision: r2 - 28 Oct 2011 - 10:57:20 - MaryBanach
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