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Unfriendly Competition

When a researcher in her lab was caught sabotaging a co-worker's experiment, Theodora Ross writes in the Sunday New York Times that Vipul Bhrigu said he'd done it because of his "internal pressure."

In the Sunday Review opinion piece, Texas Southwestern Medical Center's Ross recounts how when her graduate student Heather Ames at the University of Michigan came to her to say that she thought that someone was tampering with her experiments, other researchers, university authorities, and even the police thought that Ames might be sabotaging herself. She was tackling a tricky project and they theorized that Ames wanted an excuse as to why her experiments weren't working.

But as Ames insisted and the tampering continued, the police installed a hidden camera in the lab. That caught Bhrigu adding alcohol to Ames' cell culture medium. He confessed, saying he'd done it to slow Ames down because of his pressure on himself.

"Obviously we can't tolerate fraud, but the culture of scientific research may deserve some blame," Ross writes, pointing to the pressure to generate a lot of data and publish high-impact papers. She adds that researchers need the "freedom to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, to discover the unexpected."

She adds in the piece that Bhrigu was convicted of a misdemeanor, given probation, and paid $30,000 in restitution to UMich. Meanwhile, Ames finished her PhD and is now a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

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