So with all of the recent news about scientific retractions and reproducibility of scientific research, I sometimes wonder how we’re even able to advance science. Science is an amazingly complicated field. With this complexity and the added stress of publishing, grant applications, and talent development, corners can easily be cut. In some cases, even justified.

I run into questions from principal investigators about how much to check their team’s (techs, students, postdocs) work and productivity. Some PI’s feel that they’re not working enough. Some PI’s fear that they may often soften their data to make them seem more favorable. They may even leave out reporting negative data that doesn’t clearly support the hypothesis.

It seems like we have some trust issues here.

Dan Ariely, behavior economist, wrote about honesty in the professional world. His new book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, talks about this very thing and how cheating in teams is highly contagious. This contagion is even more pronounced if there is misconduct from superiors rather than from peers. He also found that we sometimes inadvertently may influence our team in subtle ways. For example, maybe leaving a data point out that does not quite fit the hypothesis. Or, they may not be critical enough with close colleagues.

All of these actions have an immense impact on how our people conduct the research for us. Ultimately, this affects the team and the science as a whole. Ariely shows that cheating on a small scale can be highly contagious and ultimately has higher financial impacts than the larger egregious practice, like publishing an outright false result.

From his research and my experience in managing teams, here are 5 prescriptions that can alleviate this contagious management ill;

1. Check work.
Nobody is saying to micro manage someone, but having checks and balances to ensure standards are being met can be useful. “Trust but verify. -R.Regan.”
2. Give responsibility.
Empower your team by making them accountable for their’s and their teams’ actions. People will ultimately rise to that sense of duty.
3. Make it known.
Bring attention to cheating loopholes and noble actions. People will get a sense of cultural right and wrong practices.
4. Take an oath.
Have a set of guiding practices that your team will recite before each and every duty. Take a page from physicians’ Hippocratic Oath.
5. Lead by example.
The most powerful and influential motivators of cheating always comes from our leaders. “I learned it by watching you!”-1987 PSA

Student cheating at test exam

There are many more practices that lead people astray, but there are just as many that can lead people down the right path. The point is that these have to be constant and vigilant practices. If you let little infractions slide, the infection can spread. You can ultimately pay hefty prices. Many little white lies can create a culture of dishonesty.







HBR. Biotech profits
Dan Ariely – Honost truth about dishonesty.
Nicholas Christakis – Connected.