Who Framed Roger's Data?


The case discusses proper supervision of students, proper review of data and conclusions, ownership of data, and honesty in reporting.


Roger, a well-respected graduate student, defended his dissertation early in the spring semester. His work was quite well received, and Roger was commended for his synthesis abilities, since his dissertation results and conclusions did not entirely agree with the established framework of the phenomenon he was studying. Roger was planning to stay on in the lab in order to apply for post-doctoral positions, complete some projects, finish writing the manuscripts from the dissertation to be submitted for publication, and to help train a junior graduate student and other students choosing to do a rotation through the lab.

Roger's guidance was essential for the continuation of research in the lab utilizing histochemistry, as he was the person who had originally learned the techniques and brought them into the lab. His adviser, Dr. Hare, was quite pleased with the initiative and determination that Roger had shown during the early period of his dissertation research when he was learning the histochemical techniques piecemeal from other labs. It was difficult for Roger, and his adviser and committee could offer little guidance as they were only minimally familiar with the techniques and knew nearly nothing of the technical details. Roger struggled for over two years with the techniques and their application to his model system before he started producing results. Once the results started coming, however, they came quickly. Roger and Hare were very pleased with the data, but neither Roger's adviser nor his committee examined many of the details.

A few weeks after Roger had defended, Jessica (a first-year graduate student) began an eight-week rotation through the lab. Hare had outlined for Jessica and Roger, who would be overseeing her work, a few possible projects that might give her a feel for the techniques and topics in the lab. Roger and Jessica agreed that she should start on a project that had branched out from Roger's dissertation. She would be using histochemical techniques that Roger had brought to the lab as well as some others that the lab been using quite expertly for some time, but that Roger was unable to use in his dissertation research for various reasons. Jessica was excited about the bigger picture of the research that Roger had explained to her.

Discussion Questions

1. Has the story so far provided only background, or have errors been made? For example, were there errors in judgment (by Roger, Hare, the committee), errors in scientific procedure, or perhaps errors in educational and oversight/guidance procedures?

After looking at the data from a set of preliminary experiments, Jessica brought her results to Roger. Roger questioned Jessica intently about the methods she used in the experiments and asked to see some of the materials involved. Roger told Jessica that it appeared that she had done the experiment well, but that he was pretty sure something had gone wrong. He said that he would look into it and that, in the meantime, she should begin to put her efforts into one of the other projects they had discussed. Jessica agreed and thanked Roger for his time, guidance and concern.

Jessica was unaware that her data directly conflicted with the data that Roger had produced during his dissertation research in the previous year. After questioning Jessica and looking at the materials, Roger recognized this discrepancy and was slightly concerned. If Jessica was correct, then he would have to suspect his own data. Roger tried to keep in mind that Jessica was a novice and may have made some simple mistakes. However, she was using some techniques that may have given Roger different results had he been able to use them during his dissertation work. Roger decided not to acknowledge the conflict between the data sets.

Discussion Questions

2. Given the information at hand, is there anything wrong with Roger's decision?

Roger set up the experiments that he had told Jessica he would do to try to clarify her results and performed them himself. Much to his surprise, the experiments confirmed exactly what Jessica had originally brought to him. The results were in serious conflict with Roger's conclusions in his dissertation.

Over the next few weeks Roger helped Jessica with the other project she had begun. The original project was not discussed. Roger did not bring it up, and Jessica was busy with and excited about the new project, which was going quite well. She wanted to contribute something positive to the lab before she had to move to the next rotation.

Jessica's rotation concluded with a meeting with Hare and Roger. Hare told Jessica that both he and Roger felt that she had done an excellent job, had learned quite a bit and would therefore be receiving excellent marks for the rotation.

When Hare inquired about the reason for the mid-rotation change in projects, Roger interjected. He explained that Jessica had performed some experiments that indicated that those directions were likely to be fruitless and he had felt Jessica should use the techniques she had learned on a more promising venture. Hare thought that was a good idea and thanked Roger for his attention and guidance because this strategy probably saved the lab and Jessica a lot of time and energy tracking down an apparently When Hare inquired about the reason for the mid-rotation change in projects, Roger interjected. He explained that Jessica had performed some experiments that indicated that those directions were likely to be fruitless and he had felt Jessica should use the techniques she had learned on a more promising venture. Hare thought that was a good idea and thanked Roger for his attention and guidance because this strategy probably saved the lab and Jessica a lot of time and energy tracking down an apparently false lead.

Discussion Questions

3. What, if anything, is wrong with Roger's actions? With Hare's?

4. Did Jessica do anything wrong? Why or why not?

5. Did Roger, Hare or the committee make any errors in judgment, oversight or experimental procedure prior to Roger's confirming Jessica's results? If so, what were those errors, specifically?

6. What if Roger didn't get to the experiments immediately because he had to prepare for a trip where he was interviewing for a post-doctoral position? What if he presented and discussed his dissertation data during the interview?

7. What if Roger had done the experiments that brought his dissertation results into question before he went on his interview and had still presented and discussed his data? What responsibilities does he have to any institution hiring him?

8. As it is, Roger's work has not yet been published. How would the situation differ if he published a) before the conflict came to light? b) after he discovered the conflict? c) after the meeting at the conclusion of Jessica's rotation?

9. What if Hare had intended to include Jessica's original experiments with Roger's results for a publication?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2000.

. . Who Framed Roger's Data?. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-4-2000/who-framed-rogers-data.

This case focuses on the multiple relationships that are an essential part of the training of graduate students in the sciences, particularly in the laboratory sciences. The primary emphasis is on exploring the responsibilities of the faculty members who supervise and advise a student's dissertation research, as well as the responsibilities of the student himself. However, one can also use this case to initiate a discussion of the rights and responsibilities involved in the roles of rotating first-year graduate students, senior graduate students supervising less experienced students, and faculty members hoping to recruit new students to the laboratory.

Many universities are now beginning to articulate their expectations of faculty advisers,(1)  and discussion of this case represents an excellent opportunity to investigate the standards at your own institution. More generally, the National Academy Press has published two booklets that address the graduate student-faculty adviser relationship from both the student's and faculty member's points of view.(2)

Weil and Arzbaecher have stressed the need for regular communication in laboratories,(3) and it has been my observation that candid, thoughtful communication is critical for successful relationships between students and advisers. All observations and concerns need to be shared, but at the same time there must be restraint to avoid jumping to unwarranted conclusions. To practice such candor, both must feel that each is looking out for the other's best interests as well as his own. In this scenario, it does not seem that Roger trusts Dr. Hare to look out for Roger's best interests.

Discussion Questions:

  1. While the first few paragraphs of this case scenario do not present any major ethical problems, we discover by the end of the case that there have been some oversights that lead to trouble later. The situation described is not unusual and usually presents no problem. After all, a Ph.D. dissertation is supposed to demonstrate one's ability to carry out independent, original research, and the faculty members on the dissertation committee often will be less familiar with the details of the work than the student. In this case, one wonders if Roger was too independent too soon; if Hare did as much as he should have to learn about the techniques Roger was using (especially if he plans to have his research group continue using them); if the committee members were selected to give optimal guidance or to be a rubber stamp; and if an outside committee member or consultant who was more familiar with the techniques would have spotted potential problems earlier. Perhaps someone who knew more of the technical details would have been more willing to ask a question that would have led to earlier discovery of the problems, but perhaps not. Errors in procedures and interpretation can occur with no one at fault. That is part of doing research and trying to learn something new. What is important is taking reasonable precautions to avoid errors and oversights, and then acting once a problem is discovered. However, the case as a whole gives the impression that Hare is not sufficiently involved in the details of work in his lab and may not even make it a habit to review primary data with his students. Such poor lab management practices make it easier for those who work in the lab to cut corners and even falsify data. 
  2. Roger is being less than candid with Jessica when he fails to tell her that the two data sets are in direct conflict. However, one would think that Roger's dissertation would have been required reading for Jessica as she begins to work on a project based on his research. Had she read the dissertation, she would be aware of the discrepancy already. Roger is choosing not to share his initial concerns. There is a very real question in science concerning when one discusses one's first interpretations of preliminary results. Often it is more prudent to stop, consider the data more thoroughly, and do a few more experiments before going public with one's interpretation.
  3. At this point, Roger steps over the line to unacceptable behavior. He doesn't tell Hare about the conflict he has discovered, with Jessica's help, between his old data and those he has recently generated. He allows Jessica to continue to believe that she made some sort of error in her first experiments. Finally, Roger lies to Hare about the reason that Jessica switched projects, telling him that the first project idea was "likely to be fruitless." It seems that Roger is assuming that he made some error in the past and that if his mistake becomes known the consequences for him will be negative and serious. There are other possibilities. For instance, he is not allowing for the possibility that some unrecognized and uncontrolled variable in the experiments has changed since his last dissertation experiment, and he is precluding the opportunity to identify the variable and possibly learn more about the system he has been studying. In addition, he seems to fear a loss of credibility, respect, or even his degree. That does not seem likely in this scenario. Errors happen, but Roger's actions cause one to wonder what his view of Hare and the department are. He seems to have learned that errors are not permitted. At this point in your discussion, it would be a good idea to brainstorm Roger's options. What could he do? Whom might he contact? How could he present his new findings? Then you can discuss criteria for evaluating these options, and select what you consider to be the best one.
  4. I don't think that Jessica did anything wrong, but I wonder why she did not see the conflict with Roger's dissertation data. It could indicate that she is not fulfilling her responsibilities as a graduate student to read up on the background of the research she is doing and become an independent thinker. She is a first-year student and may not have made the transition to graduate study yet.
  5. Most of this point is addressed in my notes on Question 1, but I would like to have seen at least an ongoing consultation with a scientist who is experienced with the new techniques Roger brought to the lab. The responsibility to ensure that adequate expertise was represented on the committee or was available to Roger would rest first with Hare as Roger's research adviser, then with the committee members as other faculty members responsible for Roger's training, and finally with Roger himself. As a graduate student, he also has a responsibility for his own training and a responsibility to engage in self-evaluation to determine whether he needs consultation with others to guide his research.
  6. This question moves the discussion from consideration of the appropriate level of candor within a research group, to that expected in the wider scientific community. Preliminary, possibly unreliable results are not something that one talks about in the broader community. After all, the indication is that Roger did a whole body of work that supported the conclusions of his dissertation, and one does not discard those conclusions just because a novice researcher produces a disquieting result. Yes, one keeps this new result in mind and promptly follows up on it, but one need not broadcast the conflict at this point. One might argue that if Roger were asked a direct question to which Jessica's data were relevant, he should indicate that there was some recent uncertainty. However, I believe that most scientists would not consider this admission essential.
  7. Once Roger has his confirmatory results, he does need to make the scientific community aware that some uncertainty will need to be tracked down. He need not discard his whole body of work or his conclusions; the problem could simply be due to one of the reagents going bad with time. But it would be best to be honest about the current uncertainty. In that way, he will not run the risk of being seen as deceptive
  8. The standards for certainty are higher for a journal article than for a previously scheduled seminar. Roger probably could not control the timing of the post-doc interview relative to Jessica's experiments and then his opportunity to repeat Jessica's work. However, until it is in press, one can slow publication of a paper until any reasonable uncertainties have been cleared up. Considering that as the case says, Roger's results and conclusions did not entirely agree with the established framework of the phenomenon he was studying, it is in Roger's best interest to be as sure as possible that his data are accurately describe the phenomenon he is studying. However, even with the best practices, one can err because of uncontrolled variables or an unrecognized technical problem. Ethical scientific publication requires that one be thorough and honest in what one presents, not that one be right. Similarly, if the paper based on Roger's dissertation had already been published (probably with Hare as a coauthor) when Jessica did her experiments, then Roger and Hare have an obligation to identify the reason behind the conflicting data before they publish a correction. In fact, depending on what Roger determines is the cause of the conflicting data, a formal correction may not be necessary.(4)  The only exception to this considered approach to the correction of the literature would be if a delay in clearing up the conflict might endanger human lives, for instance, if the data were important in the design of a clinical trial.
  9. If Hare had intended to include Jessica's results in the paper to be published on Roger's dissertation, that suggests that these results are important to the conclusions of the paper and that Jessica would be included as a coauthor. Roger's actions then would also unfairly deprive Jessica of coauthorship, in addition to keeping her from a possibly productive line of research.

Key concepts: graduate student training and advising, student-faculty relationships, laboratory management.

  • (1)See, for example, the "Guiding Standards for Faculty Supervision of Graduate Students" of the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (http://www.grad.uiuc.edu/grad_handbook/supervision.html).
  • (2)Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; and Institute of Medicine, Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond (1996), (http://www.nap.edu/books/0309053935/html/index.html); Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; National Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Engineering; Institute of Medicine, Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering (1997), (http://books.nap.edu/books/0309063639/html/index.html) points of view.
  • (3)Vivian Weil and Robert Arzbaecher, "Relationships in Laboratories and Research Communities" in D. Elliott and J. E. Stern, eds., Research Ethics, A Reader (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1997).
  • (4)See Cases 1 - 3 in Chapter 3 of Robin Levin Penslar, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Materials (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) for examples of situations that might not warrant formal correction.

Author: Karen Muskavitch, Indiana University.

This case touches on several points in research ethics. The points may be clear to a reader who can look at the entire picture over the course of a few minutes, but it is written to try to get the reader to look at the various steps as they may have happened -- over the course of a few weeks. The characters in the story had to deal with the issues far more slowly than one sees them while reading the case. Further, the individual steps from decision to decision are relatively small, and they may have appeared even more innocuous when addressed over a long period of time. The "slippery slope" concept is very relevant when dealing with the training of graduate students in ethical conduct in research, since the graduate years are those where they make s their first choices on where to stand in their professions.

The case is meant to address proper supervision of students, proper review of data and conclusions, ownership of data, honesty in reporting, and honesty in reporting. Jessica was included in order to provide a revelation of conflicting data and is not intended to be a significant part of the case at all. However, the case could become more complex if Roger were to act vindictively and grade her poorly based on his own biases.

The first direct question in the case asks whether any mistakes had been made before Jessica's arrival at the lab. The point addressed by this question is actually directed more toward the behavior of Hare and the committee. From the background it is clear that Hare did not take an active role in guiding Roger's development of the histochemical techniques and was not able to provide expert advice or critique regarding the results. This fact has relevance to Roger's possible misinterpretation of data. It also has relevance to the rest of the case as it gives an indication of Hare's approach to the education of students.

Roger's first relevant decision occurred when he decided not to report the conflicting results to Hare or Jessica. It could be argued that this decision was perfectly reasonable since these were only the first results produced by a novice researcher. However, Roger made an executive decision regarding data that was not his sole property. Perhaps it would have been more proper for him to mention to Jessica and Hare, even in passing, the possible relevance of what Jessica had found.

Roger's next actions were a mixture. It was good, scientifically and ethically, for him to follow up on Jessica's results. His decision to put her on a different project could go either way -- it really depends on his motivation, and the case is not clear on that point. Roger made another important decision when he completed the follow up experiments that confirmed Jessica's initial findings. The case made it clear that he did not relate his finding to anyone. In fact, he accepted thanks and praise for his monitoring of Jessica's progress and for keeping the lab "on track." It is now clear that Roger, whether it was his intent from the outset or not, is manipulating data and hiding results from the lab director.

Certain aspects of this entire situation may have been averted had Hare and the committee taken a more active role in Roger's training and guidance. This case clearly addresses issues of honest handling of data and of disclosure, touching on the ownership of data and the responsible use of laboratory resources and showing that Roger has responsibilities that go beyond his own interests. The case also demonstrates how small decisions can eventually create a situation that one would clearly have avoided were that situation one of the initial choices.