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EthicsCaseStudyForm edit

Title Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
Long Title Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?
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 A doctoral student in a lab where I had previously worked was apparently doing well. Bill had already published a first author manuscript in a high impact journal and had a second under review. Unfortunately, however, Bill's laboratory colleagues were less than professional, and he was frequently the butt of jokes and catty whispering. These unprofessional behaviors were, in my view, typical of the lab as a whole but seemingly condoned by Dr. Green, who did nothing to stop them.

One day, another graduate student in the lab, Larry, asked Bill for some bacterial strains that Bill had developed and that Larry wanted to use for some follow-up work. In Bill's haste, he accidentally handed the wrong strain to Larry, which Bill realized only later on when it was too late to cancel the experiment.

The PI of this lab, Dr. Green, was known for maintaining a culture of fear, recrimination and egoism among his lab personnel. I cannot help but think this played a factor in what Bill did next: Upon realizing his error, he switched the labels on two vials of bacterial strains, covering up his mistake in his lab notebooks and the lab stock records.

When the lab results came back with data that didn't correlate with what Bill and Larry knew from previous studies, Bill came clean and told Larry and Dr. Green about his mistake and his subsequent cover-up. He told them that he had been agonizing about his actions for weeks; he apologized profusely; and he offered to repeat the experiment on Larry's behalf so as to make amends.

Dr. Green refused this course of action, however, and had Bill come before an institutional ethics committee for a hearing and sanctioning. A number of persons testified as character witnesses at the hearing—some for and some against Bill. As word of what happened got around, the unpleasant interpersonal atmosphere in Dr. Green's lab was discussed both informally and then formally at the hearing. What carried a great deal of weight, however, was Dr. Green's own statement that, as things now stood, he could not trust any of Bill's data and he claimed he could no longer support Bill's doctoral work. Ultimately, the committee decided to grant Bill a master’s degree and he was asked to leave the program.

How does one ethically evaluate all these goings on? Clearly, Bill's cover-up behaviors were deplorable, but did the eventual punishment fit this crime? Would it have been enough simply to accept Bill's apology and his offer to repeat the experiments? Did Dr. Green over-react with vindictiveness and blame towards Bill, especially as allegations about the poor psychological atmosphere of his laboratory were aired about the department and in committee? What standards ought a committee like this keep uppermost in their deciding the fate of someone like Bill and in maintaining the professionalism of their university?
Data Acquisition, Management, Sharing and Ownership Topics No Data acquisition_management_sharing and ownership Topics
Mentor and Trainee Responsibilities Topics
Power relationships and the potential problems they involve
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
Significance of misconduct,
Factors that contribute to scientific misconduct,
Other serious deviations from scientific best practices,
Regulations and policies addressing misconduct
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 Research Misconduct, Lab Notes, Lab Partners, Mentoring, Post-doc
Other RCR Keywords Bacterial Strains; Cheating; Cover-up; Culture of Fear; Doctoral Student; Egoism; Graduate Student; Institutional Ethics Committee; Lab; Lab Notebook; Lab Stock Records; Laboratory Colleagues; Master’s Degree; Published; Recrimination; Sanctioning; Switched Labels; Unprofessional Behavior; Vials
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: r1 - 01 Nov 2011 - 14:35:23 - DebieSchilling
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