Our Invisible Friend Inside the Computer Taffy Brodesser-Akner pointed us to the blog Retraction Watch, which is fabulous. Written by journalistic machers Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, it looks at scientific retractions, primarily in the life sciences. Because when it comes to getting that research gold, some scientists are crafty like ice is cold.
Taffy flagged this particular doozy: An apology by a neuroscientist named Paul Muchowski, who’d been sanctioned by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) for falsifying data. Retraction Watch had previously posted about the ORI’s report that Murchowski had fabricated findings in a National Institutes of Health grant and two grant applications. It seems that one of his colleagues dropped the dime on him, which led to an internal investigation by his employer, The Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease in San Francisco. Muchowski resigned shortly after that investigation found he’d committed scientific misconduct.
After Retraction Watch posted about his case, Muchowski sent an apology to the blog. Quick, to the SorryWatch Analyzer!
Please read along with the letter on Retraction Watch as we paraphrase it.
Paragraph 1: (“The purpose of this letter…”) I am writing to apologize and clarify what I did. [A fine beginning!]
Paragraph 2: (“The ORI found…”) [....Aaaaaand now the apology starts to go pear-shaped.] I got in trouble for saying I did research that I didn’t do. But THEN I DID IT! Or I was totally GONNA do it. Or it totally wasn’t important that I do it.
Paragraph 3: (“Although the experiments in question were not critical…”) Even though what I didn’t do was not important, it was bad that I did it and will SO not do it again. Moreover, I did a lot of research I totally didn’t lie about.
Paragraph 4: (“I hasten to add that my research findings have never been in question.”) My work is excellent. The findings have not been retracted. I still get funding. I’m the king of Boggle. There is no higher. I got eleven points off the word quagmire.
Paragraph 6: (“One important criteria that the ORI uses…”) What I did had no impact on the research record, research subjects, other researchers, institutions, public health or welfare or anything else on in the whole entire universe, in perpetuity, including all potential universes, even tiny ones like in Men in Black.
Paragraph 7: (“I unquestionably committed serious errors in judgment.”) I messed up. I feel bad. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to mislead anybody. But have I mentioned that there was no meaningful impact to what I did?
Paragraph 8: (“I would like to reassure everyone that the results of our research studies are sound…”) Have I mentioned that my work is excellent? From the Hudson River out to the Nile, I run the marathon til the very last mile.
Paragraph 9: (“I am utterly remorseful and penitent for my mistakes…”) You guys, I feel SO BAD. But I was driven by my passion for finding a cure for fatal diseases. FATAL. DISEASES. Let’s focus on the future! All this action, no satisfaction! We’re all linked together like a chain reaction! Play or fold, love is bold. What is the future that will unfold?
As a commenter on Retraction Watch said, Muchowski’s apology fails to address the ORI’s big issue: Data falsification. The issue isn’t just the timing or non-essential-ness of some experiments; it’s THE MAKING UP OF DATA. And another commenter pointed out that Muchowski minimizes his scientific misconduct (saying the experiments in his work were reported in a grant application prior to their “completion,” while in truth, they were reported before they’d even begun) and uses classically evasive, tortured syntax (instead of saying “I falsely reported research experiments,” he says “The ORI found that I ‘falsely reported research experiments when the results did not exist at the time the grant applications were submitted.’”) The whole letter is your 10th grade English teacher’s worst passive-voice-usage nightmare.
The moral of the story: If you screw up, own it. Don’t apologize unless you’re gonna go all in. (Didn’t I just type all this stuff about Lance Armstrong? Jeez.) This guy’s got more stories than J.D.’s got Salinger.