Fraud and Falsehood Dread Examination But Truth Invites It

My title today is a quotation by the English poet Samuel Johnson, who is perhaps most famous for his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, which set the standard for modern lexicography. His expression of the role of examination is one that rings loudly for scientists, who have a history and culture of presenting their results openly through publication so that they may be examined by others. This is one of the great strengths of science and it is not unfair to say that it has been responsible for the deep respect that scientists generally enjoy for the integrity of their work and their tremendous advancements in knowledge.

But scientists are human. They are subject to the same kinds of pressures that are put on people in all professions to achieve professional respect and accomplishment. And sometimes the temptations to engage in questionable scientific practices are too great to resist.

Consider one of the most notorious recent cases of scientific misconduct. The German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön was a rising star. At the age of 27, he was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Konstanz and hired by Bell Labs, at which the work for no fewer than seven Nobel prizes in physics has been performed. He published numerous papers in highly prestigious journals reporting astonishing breakthroughs in nanotechnology, notably the ability to produce a molecular-scale transistor. He won the Otto-Klung-Weberbank and Braunschweig Prizes in 2001 and the Outstanding Young Investigator Award presented by the Materials Research Society in 2002.

But when physicists examined his publications, they started to notice anomalies. Identical noise data for experiments carried out at very different temperatures. Schön said it was an accident. Then it was noticed again. And again. And again. Schön said he had destroyed his data because of space limitations on his hard drive and that he kept no laboratory notebooks, difficult rationalizations to accept and undoubtedly poor research practices. Physicists were unable to study his data directly and were unable to reproduce his results independently. Bell Labs launched an investigation and ultimately detailed evidence for 16 examples of scientific misconduct by Schön. His coauthors — prominent scientists who were exonerated of any misconduct themselves — were embarrassed and had their own reputations for scientific integrity called into question.

In the end, most of Schön’s papers were to be retracted by the journals that had published them, with the unanimous agreement of his living coauthors (one coauthor was deceased at the time of the retractions). He left Bell Labs in disgrace. The University of Konstanz revoked his Ph.D.. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft — the German Research Foundation — withdrew his right to vote in the Foundation’s elections and banned him from serving on its committees. He is not permitted to review proposals for the Foundation nor to apply for any of its funds.

While many like to point to the Schön case as a negative example, it is better seen as a positive example of how the system of scientific review operates to uncover and expose misconduct. The scientific community is rightly concerned about misconduct. Some recent studies have found that about 2% of scientists admit to having fabricated data and as many as 35% have admitted to other questionable research practices, ranging from serial publication of research in multiple journals or abusing anonymity as a peer reviewer to suppressing data inconsistent with their theories or violating articulated ethical standards in research on humans and animals. And there is evidence that the rate of scientific misconduct is rising.

Last week, the Second World Conference on Research Integrity was held in Singapore, in which scientists in different disciplines from nations around the world gathered to develop a global ethics code that it is hoped the scientific societies of individual nations will adopt. This is a positive step.

The final result of the ethical guidelines that the conference proposes is not yet available, but a review of the draft shows that it follows the basic structure of a legal constitution. That is, the document avoids addressing detailed minutiae of specific practices that are considered to be improper, but instead sets forth higher-level concepts. It is accordingly, like most legal constitutions, a short document.

For example, the draft statement on Data Management says only that “Researchers should keep a clear, accurate record of all research in a way that will allow others to verify and replicate the work they have done.” It is simple and to the point. It does not dwell on how records should be kept or the form of the data to be kept, nor the specific ways in which it should be made available to others. These are details that might genuinely differ among different scientific disciplines and in different kinds of research environments, and the simplicity of the statement gives the underlying principle strength.

The entire draft statement can be read here.

Is a global ethics code for scientists a good thing? I believe it is. Another of the strengths of science has been that it is international in character; for the most part, scientists willingly share the results of their research openly and widely without regard for national borders because the state of knowledge will advance more quickly that way. There are, to be sure, circumstances where governments impose secrecy restrictions and modern concerns about securing intellectual-property rights at times interfere with that posture, but a posture of openness is a general part of the culture of science.

The system of review that science uses worked effectively in the Schön case to expose the fraud and to take corrective actions with the research record. But the system can be improved and promulgation of a global code can serve as an important step in that improvement — by providing a clear statement agreed to by scientists all over the world that will educate students and others of practices that are acceptable in conducting research and in publishing the results of that research.