Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
No one wants to confront scientific fraud. Not managers, not journals, and not lab colleagues. So the system isn’t designed to prevent it.
We’re told that science is special. Not only is it based on evidence rather than dogma – so goes the argument – it contains a built-in mechanism that identifies and corrects errors. How marvelous.
But what if this is one of those blind faith mantras that has been repeated so frequently everyone believes it’s true irrespective of the actual facts? Eugenie Samuel Reich is the author of Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World. In telling the story of a young physicist named Jan Hendrik Schön, her book demonstrates that there’s nothing systematic or straightforward about how the scientific record comes to be corrected.
Lots of people tried and failed to reproduce Schön’s work, in the process wasting months of their lives and significant portions of their own research budgets. Others attempted in vain to alert Nature (the elite journal that published seven of Schön’s papers during 2000 and 2001), that his work suffered from “profound” technical problems. They were advised to take their concerns elsewhere. Allegations of fraud were even made internally at the lab at which he worked, but weren’t pursued vigorously.
In the end, Schön’s widespread fraud was only identified after two external scientists, Paul McEuen and Lydia Sohn, took it upon themselves to examine his work closely and noticed that he’d recycled the same fake data in multiple papers that claimed to discuss distinct discoveries. In a 2009 interview, Samuel Reich observed that this was an instance in which
a number of people took personal risks that we should hope scientists would not have to take in order for science to make progress. People really need to stick their necks out in order to make the self-correction process of science happen. It doesn’t happen by itself.
It’s comforting to think that science is an arena in which corrections to the record are welcome, but if that is so why did Samuel Reich begin Chapter 10 in her book this way:
A whistleblower of scientific fraud once told me that he felt he needed the right to remain anonymous for the rest of his life. “Like a rape victim,” he said.
To begin with, I thought the analogy overblown. However, over time I heard so many other scientists struggle to articulate their strong aversion to being [in any way] associated with fraud that I began to take it more seriously.
The Schön story illustrates that you can get dozens of papers published in the most prestigious journals imaginable, attract worldwide headlines, be awarded multiple science prizes, and be lavishly praised by Nobel Laureates without a single other soul witnessing firsthand the revolutionary results you claim you’ve discovered.
That’s quite a system.
Anyone interested in further reading on this topic is invited to check out the following list. The last paper observes that scientific fraud is usually exposed due to “inside information by whistleblowers and not through the procedures by which science is supposed to identify fraudulent research.”