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How should I behave if I see/observe/assume unethical scientific practice or scientific fraud?

To make it a bit more clear, which situation I am asking about:
Imagine you are a PhD student and see that another PhD student or even a more senior person does something unethical. What would/should you do?
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By "unethical" you mean scientific malpractice, e.g. falsification of data or not giving due credit? Or do you mean other forms of unethical behaviour, like defamatory statements? Or even illegal acts, like mistreating animals or stealing office supplies?

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We discussed this question on the Munich ROCS mailing list. This is what we came up with:

Practical steps

Practical steps, we came up with (start with step 1 and do step 2 if step 1 fails):

  1. Talk to the person.
  2. Talk to a person you trust. Many institutions have an Ombudsman (look e.g. at the definition in Germany) for issues like this.

If you are involved in the project:

  1. Try to change the ways things are being done.
  2. Withdraw from the project.


To be able to fully answer the question we have to think about

  • What does "ethical" mean?
  • What is good scientific practice?
  • When is scientific practice not following the rules?

To behave ethically, we first have to know what that actually means – and although that seems obvious, it doesn’t mean people have reflected on that, and chosen a path to follow.

We need to be aware of what constitutes science if we want to discuss what behavior is "good scientific practice". Science is all about questioning things and searching for better ways and new solutions; and one of the main advantages of science (and democracy, for the two have a lot in common) is the capacity for continuous improvement through these processes of reflection and arguing. So whatever "rules" there are, and whoever put them in place, it is NOT enough to follow them – at least not for a real scientist. We always have to think about them: what is the purpose pursued, and is this the best way to pursue it?

If science is all about (1) searching for new insights, and (2) going about this in a methodical way (3) that can be reviewed by others, then whatever we do should support that – in all its aspects. Although these days "truth" is not what we talk of, because our insights have proven not to be everlasting, seeingly creating something false isn’t bad science – it actually isn’t science at all. We need to be aware of that when we discuss "fake science" problems or "predatory journals", because it means that there is a lot to be discussed and improved in "real science"…

Often people hate the bearer of bad news, so doing it is hard. But if we want to live in a world that is ruled by insight and decency rather than by frauds, we have to make a stand.

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In case of intentional fraud, I don't think that confronting the person is a good approach. This is much like confronting a burglar during a break-in - you might get yourself into a lot of trouble. In that case I would confide in our ombudsperson.

However, I would confront the person if it is safe to assume that he or she might not be aware of what they are doing wrong and there is a chance of correcting the problem.

If I am not sure, I would try to get a second opinion from a colleague I can trust in.

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