Scrutinizing NSF research

Rachael Allbritten, an expert in sociolinguistics, can pick up on class or regional differences by tuning into the way people use language. For the past 3 years, she’s drawn upon similar skills, and other aspects of her scientific training, to spot cheating in the scientific literature.

Aaron Manka’s studies in physics led him to quantum optics, a field focused on how light and matter interact on small scales. He now uses his analytical skills to uncover wrongdoing in science, where, as in the quantum world, things are sometimes not what they seem.

While there’s no single path to a career investigating scientific misconduct, Manka says a background in any scientific field is helpful in preparing for the work.

Investigating options

As an undergraduate, Allbritten studied international business and language at the University of North Alabama. She took a required linguistics class and was fascinated by the subject. “I was always interested in science and math and foreign language,” she says. “Those subjects didn’t seem to go together until I discovered that there is actually a science of how humans use language.”

Upon receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1999, Allbritten moved to Fairfield, California, to teach high school courses in Spanish and French. She also worked with adults, teaching English as a second language. Still intrigued by linguistics, she became a student again: She entered graduate school at Georgetown University and received a master’s degree in computational linguistics in 2007. She continued with doctoral studies, focusing on phonetics and the way people use them to express (usually subconsciously) individual differences.

While completing her dissertation, Allbritten had an opportunity to work as an intern at the NSF-OIG. Assigned to work on plagiarism cases, she noticed that the plagiarism-detection tools she was using, which compare large blocks of text, drew upon language-processing concepts she had studied.

In 2011, fresh from the doctoral program and still working as an NSF-OIG intern, she started interviewing with universities, seeking a faculty or postdoctoral position. But when a full-time investigator position arose, she set her academic ambitions aside and “jumped at the chance” to apply for the job. She is one of two linguists (and one of two former interns) who now serve on the six-member scientist-investigator team.

“I feel very luck to have such a fascinating job,” she says. “I like the digging and I like putting the puzzle pieces together. I think there’s a huge connection between solving these cases and the research that we used to do.”

Chasing bad guys

Because the OIG is a law-enforcement office, the NSF group has the authority to subpoena materials and independently investigate matters related to integrity. Allegations might be connected to a funded grant, or to one that was not funded. “We’ll look at it either way,” says James Kroll, head of the Division of Research Integrity and Administrative Investigations.

Allegations of data fabrication often come from a university or from someone working in a university laboratory. Plagiarism frequently is flagged during peer review, when a reviewer or panel member recognizes another scientist’s work. In addition, the NSF team randomly checks a small percentage of the 45,000 grant proposals that come through the door, looking for plagiarism. (In 2011, the office reviewed all 8000 funded proposals for that year. Between 1 and 1.5% were found to include plagiarized copy.)

Manka, a senior investigative scientist at the NSF-OIG, says his systematic approach, which he once applied to physics problems, works equally well when piecing together the facts in a misconduct case. It’s a very similar process, he says, “except the facts are different and the stories are different.”

Manka began his studies in electrical engineering at Tennessee Technological University, but soon found he wanted to delve more deeply into science. So he switched majors and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He entered doctoral studies at Drexel University, starting in particle physics and eventually focusing on quantum optics. After receiving his doctorate, he got a 3-year postdoctoral appointment through the National Research Council, in the quantum optics group at Redstone Arsenal, an army post located near Huntsville, Alabama.

When his postdoc ended, Manka focused his job search on universities. He didn’t get any faculty offers, but he received several offers for postdoc positions. The prospect of taking a second postdoc gave him pause: He had married recently, his wife was ready to start her own career in industrial physics, and she wasn’t interested in ”hopping around the country for temporary jobs,” he says.

Taking a fresh look at job postings, one “oddball” job description caught his eye. It was from the NSF-OIG, and it described an opportunity for someone with a background in physics or mathematics. The ad outlined the need to address allegations in research, describing the process in a way that made it sound “like solving a puzzle,” Manka says. “When I saw the ad, I was still 99% set on an academic path, but thought the job sounded interesting and might be fun.”

Currently, Manka is setting up a project to assess how universities are implementing the NSF requirement for responsible conduct of research programs. “We’re curious [about] how universities have chosen to educate their students on those topics,” he says.

Most of his time is spent assessing allegations tied to falsification or fabrication of data. Working alongside an investigative attorney, he goes through the facts and writes a report. Kroll reviews reports before sending them to Allison Lerner, the NSF inspector general. Once Lerner signs off, the report goes to the agency. This multilayered process can lead to some frustration, Manka says, but ultimately “it’s fair,” and he gets satisfaction from the results. “I like if we get the bad guy, and I like if we can clear the good guy,” he says. 

Stepping up efforts

When the NSF-OIG completes an investigation and writes a report, they make a recommendation to the NSF administration, but it’s the deputy director who makes the decision whether to declare a “finding” of research misconduct. Outcomes vary: Investigators may receive a letter of reprimand, or be banned from participating as a peer reviewer. Those found culpable may be required to submit a “certification” letter, signed by them, or even an “assurance” from the dean or department chair. Scientists may be debarred, preventing them from obtaining government funds of any type for a specified period.

Kroll says that, with more researchers competing for a declining pool of federal research dollars, issues surrounding research integrity will continue to be a strong focus for his office, as well as for research institutions that receive federal funds. This may lead to expanded career opportunities within the NSF-OIG, and it’s quite likely to lead to new opportunities elsewhere, including at the university level.

While there’s no single path to a career investigating scientific misconduct, Manka says a background in any scientific field is helpful in preparing for the work. ”You need to be open-minded but skeptical. I think those are qualities that scientists have in general anyway.

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