A graduate student wrestles with uncomfortable decisions in trying to interpret her research results. She struggles to make un-biased judgments and interact appropriately with the press.
Kate is a graduate student in Professor Brigg's lab. She started a project examining the effects of certain video games in children during her first year of graduate school. She knows that some of the funding for her project comes from a video game manufacturer, but the money does not give the company control over how the research is conducted, and she believes she has been careful not to let the source of funds influence her project design and data collection.
Kate has collected all of the data for her project, and she has been carefully examining the trends. Looking back, she might have changed some of her data-collection methods if she could do it over again; but she knows that is the nature of research, and that lessons learned in one project generate new questions to ask in the future. She is excited to see a clear trend in her data that indicates a positive effect of educational video games, but the effect washes out after about a year or two, and she is unsure how to interpret it. She creates a rough draft of a paper that carefully outlines all of her analyses and gives it to Dr. Brigg for review. Later in his office, Dr. Brigg explains that the “Results and Conclusions” section of her paper is very weak. He says that she does not make a strong case for the importance of her research, and that the quality of the journal where her paper will be published depends largely on her ability to interpret the data. “I’m not saying to leave out data,” he says, “but the story you tell about the data is at least as, if not more, important than the data themselves.”
Kate knows that research papers are rarely air-tight. In fact, members of her lab will often spend lab meetings ripping apart a paper from another group in order to stimulate discussion about the author’s conclusions and generate ideas for future research. She feels she must choose a black or white stance in her interpretation of the effects of gaming in order to create a strong paper. She also knows that if she emphasizes the positive effects of the games, she could easily write another grant to the video game manufacturer to study the later wash-out period with a high probability of funding.
After thinking about it for a few days, Kate decides that the initial trend in her data is interesting enough that it should be emphasized in her paper. She writes another draft that emphasizes this trend and only briefly mentions the wash-out as a subject for further research. When she gives the draft to Dr. Brigg he is very excited. He says the results are very compelling and suggests they submit to a nationally-recognized journal. The paper is published, and Kate receives a great deal of recognition and congratulations from others within the university. She also receives a number of requests from news reporters to discuss her findings. The reporters seem not to notice that the numbers wash out and do not ask about it. Kate knows that all the press is good for her career, but she is also not skilled at giving interviews and she is happy to have Dr. Brigg speak with many of the reporters for her. Dr. Brigg is delighted to receive the publicity for his lab, and each time he is interviewed he is careful to emphasize the value of these games for young children.
Eventually Kate’s paper is challenged by a competing research group. Their results indicate a deleterious effect of the games over a longer time period. At this point Kate is working in her own lab on another research topic. She is tired of speaking to reporters, and she is still not comfortable giving interviews. She is also a little worried that the interpretation of her research may have encouraged parents to have their children play games that may ultimately be harmful. Some reporters are even suggesting that her interpretation of the data was motivated by her industry funding, although she doesn’t think that is true. She decides to adopt a policy of not communicating with any members of the press.
Park, Alice. 2007. Baby Einsteins: Not So Smart After All. Time. Posted: Monday, Aug. 06, 2007,
Auge, Karen. 2011. 'Baby Einstein' DVD creators find redemption in documents suggesting negative study was flawed. The Denver Post. Posted: 06/30/2011
Posted 5 years and 8 months ago
Author(s): Mark Frankel
This case deals with several important issues, but one thing readers should note is that a conflict of interest does not exist because you "know" or "desire" something. There must be a context/situation that would trigger a conflict. So, in the example of a judge who recuses himself from a case, the context is some sort of litigation requiring recusal. Sometimes a researcher will find herself in a situation, either created by herself or others (e.g., her mentor's industry funding), where she has to act accordingly. Hence, the context/situation triggers a behavior that will determine (1) whether she has a conflict of interest, and (2) whether it is or is not likely to affect her research. To summarize, the important questions are not whether Kate has "knowledge of" or "desire to"--neither knowledge nor desire constitute a conflict of interest per se. She has to act on that knowledge or desire in order to trigger a conflict. Even then, having a conflict is not a priori good or bad; what's critical is how one deals with it.
Posted 5 years and 10 months ago
Author(s): Joan E. Sieber
This is an excellent case because it illustrates the subtle and diverse pressures that may influence researcher behavior. It is a great example of COI, bias, career pressures, challenges of dealing with the press, and challenges of dealing with criticism. It incorporates all of the things that most researchers have encountered in one form or another. The best part of the case is that Kate is basically a moral person, and she had qualms from the very beginning. Yet, she has ventured down the slippery slope and is now is a position that is uncomfortable, yet safe because her present career direction is different from the one that took her down the slippery slope. The final question is whether she has an obligation to open herself up to criticism now that she is safely off on a different line of research. So she is still under subtle pressure not to do the right thing. And we can all empathize.
The case is designed to make the learner wary and uncomfortable because we can all identify with poor Kate. We all know Dr. Briggs and all know the career pressures Kate feels. Great case!