A Partial Defense of the Pete Rose Rule

I tweeted this yesterday: Let’s adopt a Pete Rose Rule for fakers = banned for life.  Nothing questionable about fraud.  Jobs and funds are too scarce for 2nd chances.

My initial thought was that people who have been shown by a preponderance of the evidence to have passed faked datasets as legitimate should be banned from receiving grants and publishing papers for life.   [Pete Rose was a baseball player and manager in professional baseball who bet on games when he was a manager. This made him permanently ineligible to participate in the activities of professional baseball.]

Nick Brown didn’t like this suggestion and provided a thoughtful response on his blog.  My post is an attempt to defend my initial proposal. I don’t want to hijack his comments with a lengthy rejoinder. You can get banned for life from the Olympics for doping so I don’t think it is beyond the pale to make the same suggestion for science.  As always, I reserve the right to change my mind in the future!

At the outset, I agree with his suggestion that it is not 100% feasible given that there is no overall international governing body for scientific research like there is for professional sports or the Olympics. However, the research world is often surprisingly small and I think it would be possible to impose an informal ban that would stick. And I think it could be warranted because faking data is exceptionally damaging to science. I also think it is rare so perhaps it is not worth thinking about too much.

Fakers impose huge costs on the system.  First, they make journals and scientists look bad in the eyes of the public. This is unfortunate because the “public” ultimately pays for a considerable amount of scientific research.  Faked data undermine public confidence in scientists and this often bleeds over into discussions about unrelated issues such as climate change or whether vaccines cause autism.  Likewise, as Dr. Barr pointed out in a comment on Nick’s blog, there is a case to be made for taking legal action for fraud in some cases.

Second, it takes resources to investigate the fakers. At the risk of speaking in broad generalities, I suspect that huge amounts of time are invested when it comes to the investigation of faked data. It takes effort to evaluate the initial charge and then determine what was and was not faked for people with long CVs. Efforts also need to be expended determine whether co-authors were innocent or co-conspirators.  This is time and money NOT spent on new research, teaching students, reviewing papers, etc.

Third, fakers impose costs on their peers.  Academics is a competitive enterprise.  We are judged by the number and quality of our work.  I suspect it is much easier to pump out papers based on fake data than real data.  This matters because there are limited numbers of positions and grant dollars.  A grad student faker who gets a paper in say Science will have a huge advantage on the job market.  There are far more qualified people than university positions.  Universities that have merit-based systems end up paying superstars more than mere mortals.  A superstar who faked her/his/their way to an impressive CV could easily have a higher salary than an honest peer who can’t compete with faked data.  Likewise, fakers cause their peers to waste limited resources when researchers attempt to extend (or just replicate) interesting results.

To my mind, faking data is the worst crime in science because it undermines the integrity of the system.  Thus, I believe that it warrants a serious punishment once it is established after a thorough judicial process or a confession.  You might think a lifetime ban is too severe but I am not so sure.

Moreover, let’s say the field decides to let a faker back in the “game” after some kind of rehabilitation.  Is this wise? I worry that it would impose additional and never-ending costs on the system.  The rehabilitated faker is going to continue to drain the system until retirement. For example, it would cost resources to double-check everything she or he does in the future.  How am I supposed to treat a journal submission from a known faker? It would require extra effort, additional reviews, and a lot of teeth gnashing. I would think a paper from a faker would need to independently replicated before it was taken seriously (I think this is true of all papers, but that is a topic for another day).  Why should a known faker get grants when so many good proposals are not funded because of a lack of resources? Would you trust a rehabilitated faker to train grad students in your program?

So my solution is to kick the “convicted” faker out of the game forever.  There are lots of talented and bright people who can’t get into the game as it stands.  There are not enough resources to go around for deserving scientists who don’t cheat.  I know that I would personally never vote to hire a faker in my department.

But I am open-minded and I know it sounds harsh. I want to thank Nick for forcing me to think more about this. Comments are welcome!