Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Co-authoring and Mentoring: Trust or What?

Political science exploded in the news today as a grad student and senior prof wrote a piece that made big news and then was revealed (allegedly, apparently, insert legal modifier here) to be fradulent.*
* Indeed, I need to insert a caveat here--I have read the retraction letter and related materials but not the original article nor is this in my area of expertise.  I am just discussing what it means for other folks in this business.

The student may have falsfied data, altering existing data rather than doing the work he was supposed to have done--surveys, etc.  That the issue involved was attitudes about gays only makes it more salacious and salient for observers.  That it happens when the social science funding for the National Science Foundation is under attack makes it ever worse.

For me, the questions being raised about co-authors and advisers are the ones that concern me.  Some folks are saying that this guy's adviser and/or co-author failed the discipline by not discovering the fraud.

My problem with this is: what do we expect advisers and co-authors to do?  As I have been in all four spots here (the co-author joining a project, the guy asking folks to join a project, the advisee and the adviser), I have to think a bit about this.  And when I think aloud, I type here.
  • The point of co-authoring is to have a division of labor so that the various folks involved are not duplicating the efforts of the other(s) that much.  One does not expect one's co-author to lie/cheat/steal or else one would not choose that person.  Engaging in intensive oversight over co-authors makes little sense (back to that in a second).
  • The job of an adviser is to train, direct and provide feedback.  Certainly, the adviser should read the work of the advisee with care, but the relationship involves trust.  I didn't ask my students to provide me with plane tickets, hotel bills, photos of interviews, nor did I plumb the dark depths of their datasets.   I did read their work to make sure that their efforts were sound and such, but it again is a relationship of trust.  One tries to verify but only to a modest degree. 
If one wants to condemn this guy's advisers and co-authors, I have to ask: what would you have them do?  Be on the phone (via teleconferencing) for every or many or some conversations the student has with the survey firm?  To attend every, many, some of the focus groups?  To travel with and observe the interviews?

This fraud was revealed because other students wanted to use the data and once they worked with it extensively, it became clear that there is something wrong.  They notified the adviser and the co-author, both pressed the student to explain, the student provided inadequate explanations.  This might all have been ugly, but the system kind of worked.

The point really is that fire alarm forms of oversight are largely reactive and public.  Someone notices a problem that already happened, complains, and then folks react.  That this system is in place serves as a deterrent in so far as a person's academic career is trashed if they do something that activates the alarm.

If we used police patrol oversight--constant patrolling and monitoring--we might be better able to deter, but at the cost of much time and money (grant money for profs to accompany students while they are doing field work?)  This kind of oversight can be more quiet (or not) and can be more preventative. 

We, of course, really do not know enough to judge much of this.  But we can think about the process and how we could do it better.  Just as some are thinking more today about the pressures facing grad students to publish quickly.

One other thing: what about the money?  This was supposedly funded research so either the student didn't really have the money to do the work OR did but didn't spend on the survey firm which raises the question of what did he spend the money on OR the money is still sitting in a research account.  And, yes, this is a big deal.  Fraud over ideas?  Bad.  Fraud over ideas and abusing research accounts?  Much worse--as it brings in cops, auditors, IRS, etc, etc.

If anyone has suggestions of how to mentor better or co-author better yet not foster distrust, let me know.


Anonymous said...

One suggestion: If you're on a hiring committee, look for applicants with really nicely designed studies with inconclusive findings. Hire that person. Decrease the inequality of payoffs between significant and insignificant results.

Steve Saideman said...

I don't know about how things work around the world/country, but this kind of already does tend to happen. That is, in places I am familiar with, it is more about the question (is it interesting, is it important) and the research design (is it well designed, is it clever?) than the results.

Of course, the first cut is often about publications and there is a publication bias towards significant results and that is a problem.

Rob said...

What kind of due diligence co-authors should do to satisfy themselves about the validity of the research is an important question, but let's be sure to consider also the relationships inherent in co-authorship. The senior author is lending his or her name and reputation to the research. In doing so, he or she is, or certain should be, representing to the profession and the public that the research is what it purports to be. Senior researchers shouldn't get off the hook entirely by saying they trusted others; they do have some obligation to know whether there's salad oil in the silos.

Unknown said...

It seems LaCour never accepted the grant money, which makes sense because the granting agency would have demanded an account for how the money was spent and since no work was actually done this would have been impossible.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Steve, but there were red flags that an advisor should catch. Be honest with me: if a grad student of yours claimed to bring in eight hundred thousand dollars worth of grant money, you wouldn't be looking closely at what they were doing?

Anonymous said...

1. Combining the money and advising questions, UCLA policy, as at most universities, requires that a grad student's advisor, not the grad student, serve as PI for the purposes of receiving grants or getting IRB approval. Given how public the student was about his grant-landing success, where was Lynn Vavreck, his advisor? Or the UCLA dept chair? Certainly the univ would be expected to collect its standard overhead on the grants.

Are you saying, Steve, that an advisor can't be expected to notice that their student is claiming to be receiving $800,000 in grant money and is apparently doing so in gross violation of university rules and general common sense?

2. Agreed that you probably can't expect Green to have caught the fraud, but you can expect some consistency from him in describing his role. Green's story months ago in media interviews was that this was fully a joint deal and even that he 'recruited' LaCour. Now, Green's version is basically that LaCour appeard out of nowhere and begged Green to sign on to a nearly-finished project just to get the moosehead attached.

Steve Saideman said...

Notice that my original post did raise issues about the money. I don't know how research accounting works at UCLA. I didn't know when I wrote this post how much "money" was at stake. In the places I have worked, when my students got money and did the REB/IRB/whatever paperwork, I signed off on the initial proposal and the renewals. But the money never went through me--I did not see each bill or receipt. Nor did I think to ask for them. The university, of course, processed such stuff so that if there were no receipts that would be a problem. Ghost receipts? That has happened--where scientists at my last job hired ghost RAs to turn grant money into income...

I do think that we can ask questions about Vavreck and Green on this. I am just not going to assume that they did something tremendously wrong (unless the money went directly through them or UCLA has different procedures than McG and CU).

I don't really know what Green said before. He may be covering, he may be angry at being betrayed. No doubt that both V and G will get a reputational hit because of this. Will that matter in the long run? Probably not that much, I guess.

My post here was mostly to present the basic reality and think a bit about oversight and how much can/should mentors/co-authors do.

And get feedback from folks about what they think advisers and co-authors should do.