Collaboration Red Alert. Magical Data from Colleague.

Francine was just months away from finishing her Ph.D. dissertation when she realized that something was seriously amiss with the work of a fellow graduate student, Sylvia. Francine was convinced that Sylvia was not actually making the measurements she claimed to be making. They shared the same lab, but Sylvia rarely seemed to be there. Sometimes Francine saw research materials thrown away unopened. The results Sylvia was turning in to their common thesis advisor seemed too clean to be real.

Francine knew that she would soon need to ask her thesis advisor for a letter of recommendation for faculty and postdoc positions. If she raised the issue with her advisor now, she was sure that it would affect the letter of recommendation. Sylvia was a favorite of her advisor, who had often helped Sylvia before when her project ran into problems. Yet Francine also knew that if she waited to raise the issue the question would inevitably arise as to when she first suspected problems. Both Francine and her thesis advisor were using Sylvia’s results in their own research. If Sylvia’s results were inaccurate, they both needed to know as soon as possible.

  1. Should Francine first try to talk with Sylvia, with her thesis advisor, or with someone else entirely?
  2. Does she know enough to be able to raise concerns?
  3. Where else can Francine go for information that could help her decide what to do?

“Collaboration Red Alert. Magical Data from Colleague” is Part 8 of our “On Being a Scientist” series, where we explore the culture and practice of science within the context of society. Stay tuned for Part 9.

Further Reading: On Being a Scientist, National Academy Press


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