On Being a Scientist (2016)

Last modified: November 8, 2018

On Being a Scientist was produced for educational purposes by Leiden University. It aims to raise students’ awareness of academic integrity and to prepare them for the problems and dilemmas they could encounter as scientists. While cases like fraud are often very clear, On Being a Scientist focuses on the ‚grey area’ in which questions about scientific misconduct are more difficult. It does not provide clear-cut answers or step-by-step solutions but instead invites students to reflect upon these cases themselves.

Relevance

This film brings to attention the difficulties about authorship connected to group research.

This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Intellectual property / Plagiarism / Student-supervisor relationship / Statistical significance
Medium: YouTube (This link was last checked 08-11-2018)
Fragments: 1

Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb
Drama / playing time: 56 min.

Content and context

This fictional film was produced for educational purposes by Leiden University. It aims to raise students’ awareness of academic integrity and to prepare them for the problems and dilemmas they could encounter as scientists. While cases like fraud are often very clear, On Being a Scientist focuses on the ‚grey area’ in which questions about scientific misconduct are more difficult. It does not provide clear-cut answers or step-by-step solutions but instead invites students to reflect upon these cases themselves.

In 2009 a group of researchers makes an important scientific discovery. There is only one problem: who will get the credits for it? Should it be the PhD candidate Pierre Descartin who has done the spadework or the eminent professor Nicholas Ponter who headed the group? Both scientists believe they are entitled to claim glory, but in the end it is prof. Ponter who is awarded the prestigious Weinberg prize.

Seven years later prof. Ponter is back at the Leiden University to continue his research on protein- protein-interactions. Here Descartin publicly confronts him with questions about the origin of his ideas: ’did they really originate out of your own mind?’ At first prof. Ponter is defensive to these accusations but as the story continues he becomes more and more confused. Did he, without fully realizing it, steal Descartin’s idea and commit scientific misconduct by accepting the Weinberg prize on a personal title?

Fragment [25:05 – 27:27]

This fragment shows a conversation between prof. Ponter and the dean of Leiden University. The dean, unaware of prof. Ponter’s struggle with Descartin’s accusations, wants to nominate him for a position at the commission for scientific integrity. However, she is not immediately clear about her intentions, leading prof. Ponter to an increased state of paranoia because he thinks she is about to accuse him of scientific misconduct.

Ethics

This fragment illustrates that authorship -who came up with what idea and who should get credits for it- is not always a clear-cut case. For prof. Ponter the question of credits at the time of publication was not a question at all; he was the one who thought up the project, got it funded and made it happen. Descartin, although essential to the project, was just a Ph.D. candidate who was lucky enough to get a chance to contribute to such an important research project.

Seven years later prof. Ponter realizes that from the point of science, collaboration and authorship he should have mentioned Descartin. Prof. Ponter now finds himself in a situation where the right thing to do is also the most difficult thing to do: he has to put his own carrier at risk by telling the truth, namely that in the past he might have failed to make a distinction between personal views and professional ethics. But at the same time he knows that Descartin -at least at this point- has nothing to prove it. Should he really risk everything purely because a long time ago he treated a colleague unfair?

Suggested use in education

This fragment can be used as a point of departure to discuss authorship connected to group work. Students can reflect on questions like: (1) is this a clear cut-case for you (prof. Ponter is wrong, Descartin is right)? (2) Can you sympathize with prof. Ponter’s argument that he organized the whole project so it is only fair that he gets all the credits for it? (3) Can you think of any solutions – rules and clear policies- that might solve the difficulties surrounding group work and credit.

Ending

In the end prof. Ponter publicly acknowledges that he was wrong to accept the Weinberg prize on personal title. He states that most scientific discoveries, like the one on protein-protein-interactions, are not due to the endeavours of one person, and that he should not have acted as if it was.

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