Walking the Thin Line Between a Great Result and a Lie

Dear Dora: Walking the line between a result and a lieDear Dora,

My PI often overstates my results when he presents my work in talks. How do I know if it’s just a little bit of hype versus being a lie, or even worse unethical?

– TJ, grad student


Dear TJ,

Many PI’s are very passionate about their research, and they get even more excited when their students get positive results. In most scientific talks, however, the speakers are very careful of how they phrase their conclusions. For example, if they discover a drug that killed cancer cells in mice, they might say something like “These results suggest that this drug has the potential to become an anti-cancer therapeutic in humans” instead of “We discovered a drug that cures cancer.” The first statement is acceptable if the drug was successful in mice, but the second statement is untrue since the drug was not tested in humans.

If your PI makes false statements, such as “The drug killed 100% of the cancer cells” when it only killed 80%, then that would be unethical (refer to my previous article on ethics in case you missed it). When you write your publications you need to be very critical of your data and conclusions, because if you are caught making false statements, you could be barred from research. Most PI’s word their conclusions knowing that their publications will be criticized harshly by other groups.  However, if your PI asks you to exaggerate your results or put false data in your paper, it would be a good idea to talk to an ombudsman (links to my previous article on that topic).


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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