SV: Why are ethics critical in science? Who profits when ethics are breached, and who is hurt?
EB: I always start by saying that for me, science is about finding the truth and truthfully reporting it. Ethics are important because you need to do science in a way that is not harmful for others (humans or animals) to the best of your abilities. For me, ethics represent … how truthfully and responsibly we do science, so it’s very important.
Science misconduct or any ethical breach probably makes it easier to publish because if you don’t follow the rules, you might get better results. This is like traffic laws: if we did not have any laws for speeding or running red lights, we would all be on time for our appointments, but there would be a lot of collateral damage. People who are in research publishing, who are looking for results that fit their hypothesis, might be tempted to not follow the rules and to completely make up results. In the end, it pays off to cheat. We can drive faster in our cars, but the rules are there for a reason. Unfortunately, the chance of getting caught breaking the rules is not that high in science. The chance of facing consequences if you get caught are also very low. The rewards are high, but the chances of punishment are low.
SV: How do you feel about the ethics courses offered to STEM students?
EB: I’ve never actually taken a research integrity course during my undergraduate or graduate degree classes. From what I’ve seen, the ethics classes offered by universities are boring. The examples they used always seemed to be very far away from what I was doing. I found them to be so obviously wrong. There are a lot of vague situations that are not covered in these classes. I found them very general, not very specific or useful.
SV: How rigorous are journals’ screening processes? What steps do they take to ensure that they don’t publish duplicated or falsified data?
EB: They are more rigorous now than 10 years ago because of the work of several ethical researchers. Reputable journals have stricter guidelines for text and images—they pay more attention to plagiarism, have thorough image reviews, and check for duplications. On the other hand, some journals are going rogue and misuse the open access model. Authorship is being sold, and the use of ChatGPT in writing review articles or fake research articles is on the rise. Paper mills are a huge problem now. Also, some journals have special issues run by guest editors who may not be thorough. Many papers are being retracted from these special issues.
SV: Your PhD and postdoctoral research are in microbiology. What drew you to science integrity?
EB: I started exploring it in 2013 when I first learned about plagiarism. I looked up a sentence from my own paper on Google Scholar and to my surprise found two other papers with the same sentence. One of these papers had multiple sentences stolen from different publications. It was a patchwork of copy-pasted parts. I wrote to the editor of the journal, and the paper was retracted. Soon, this became my extracurricular activity. I reported about 80 papers and PhD theses in one year. I soon started looking at falsified and duplicated data. Eventually, I realized I liked doing this more than my regular job.
SV: How difficult was it to break into this profession?
EB: I wouldn’t advise other women to get into this profession as it doesn’t bring in a lot of money. It has been difficult, not in terms of doing the work but in terms of being accepted as an expert. I still feel like I’m struggling with that.
SV: You have several blogs, an active Twitter (now X) following, and are a science integrity consultant. What keeps you motivated?
EB: I’m trying to change the world of science publishing. I’m trying a little to find the rotten apples in the fruit basket of science and to hopefully make science better and more trustworthy. It’s not my goal to get people fired, but I know it happens.
SV: How do you start analyzing images or visual data in publications? How can one keep an eye out for manipulated images?
EB: I look specifically for duplications. Western blots are a very rich source of reuse, for example. Sometimes you see two or three flow cytometry panels having the same group of events/dots. Line graphs or bar graphs are very hard to find misconduct in. Once you get used to seeing these images repeatedly, it will take you a few seconds to spot the pattern. If you want to learn more about it, look up PubPeer [a whistle-blowing platform], where people report such data.
SV: How can you ensure that ethics are followed in your organization, and what should you do if they aren’t? Who is ultimately responsible?
EB: It’s hard. Just giving a class in ethics is not enough. You also need to educate senior staff and hold them accountable in an organization. I feel that is where universities are lacking. How should they follow up an actual allegation of misconduct?
[In a scenario where] a grad student reports a PI who is powerful and who brings in a lot of grants, whom is the university going to protect? In most cases, the grad student leaves academia, completely disillusioned because they were not believed.
There are also cases of false accusations because the employee was disgruntled. Sometimes the senior professor may shirk responsibility and blame the juniors as well. There are many different scenarios, but in most famous cases, you can see that there are multiple rounds of whistleblowers trying to report these people and that they were not believed by the institutions. I think this is where institutions must do better.
There’s enormous pressure in science to be the best and to crank out as many papers as possible. It is very tempting to take shortcuts, to not follow the rules, and to not report completely honestly. The rewards are high, and the chances of repercussions are very low.
SV: What comes next in your career?
EB: I guess retirement! Hopefully, I will still have a voice and will still have a chance to change the world, especially because I won’t be employed [by a particular institution]. A lot of people will not be taking the risks I’m taking, as it can be very hard for your career to criticize other people.
SV: Any last questions, comments, or areas that you would like to reflect on for this article?
EB: The role of artificial intelligence scares me. Generative AI can write papers and generate false data and images. That is a field that is very scary in a way: people can no longer trust their eyes. I’m very worried for how we can distinguish future manuscripts, how we can determine if they are real. Authorships are also being sold. ChatGPT can generate data, fake images, and “produce” experiments that never happened. What can new technology mean in the hands of the wrong people?
Sushmitha Vallabh is a lab manager at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with an MS in immunology in 2017. After graduating, she worked in the university lab as a technician and eventually moved to San Diego to accept her current role. She loves reading, watching sunsets, and meeting fellow scientists!