An essential book about scientific integrity for ESR: it’s “fantastic”

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At the University of Groningen, all of the PhD students have to take a course named scientific integrity. Since an interactive workshop on Ethics and Integrity in Science embedded in the training program of this year summer school, I would like to add my input to that by introducing a book written about the most famous case of scientific fraud. This book will explain what is scientific misconduct? and why does Hendrik Schön’s (a fraud committer mentioned in the book) behaviour count as such? What does Schön’s case show about the implications that scientific misconduct has for science and society? Which institutional factors made it possible/easier for Schön to commit scientific misconduct? Are Schön’s colleagues partly to blame for Schön’s misconduct? What are lessons about scientific integrity should we draw from the case of Hendrik Schön? In fact, this article is a part of my opinion essay on this book for the final assessment of the abovementioned course. By reading this book, I learned many lessons about scientific misconducts, the behaviour of scientists that are considered as wrongdoings. I hope you will find it useful, but to make it short, you can briefly skim this article before reading it.

First off, what is that book?

Plastic Fantastic is a book investigating a case of one of the most foolhardy and biggest scientific fraud. Additionally, consequences of scientific fraudulence are also mentioned, which affect not only on the misleading person’s integrity and dignity but also on science and society. Factors including colleagues, institutions and Schön himself, which constituted to his fraud are also discussed in the book.


Scientific misconduct, how should we understand?

Scientific misconduct can be defined in terms of data fabrication, falsification of findings and plagiarism, which happened to mislead the scientist community and the public. It is the contravention of the fundamental ethical values and the standard prides of a scientist throughout publications on professional scientific journals. This sort of violation occurs as an intention of fraudulent researchers to distort research data such as hypotheses, images, graphs, texts, numbers and methods, and ultimately creating false messages from their work on publications. Taking a closer look at scientific misconduct behaviours, fabrication of data is one of the types which outcomes of studies are manually created, widely accepted arguments are made but they are not experimentally proven. Another type is falsification, which researchers make up the raw data or manipulating images, adjust numbers to draw expected results accordingly to hypotheses. Plagiarism is also a common format of fraud that is scholarly dishonesty employing languages, ideas, thoughts, hypotheses, expressions from other authors without providing appropriate credits. Plagiarism violates the copyright and causes serious offences to the original work. It is worth to mention that an addition of someone’s name who does not have any contribution to the author list or a manipulation on original photos are also considered the fraudulent behaviour.

Besides the understanding the definition and types, it is necessary to know the motives that lead the fraudster to commit to scientific misconduct. The first reason is career pressure on which factors such as reputation, promotion, funding, and ambition tempted scientists becoming cheaters. The second motivation is driven by the working environment which facilitates the ease of fabrication.

Schön’s case and why is it count as such?

It is obvious that Hendrik Schön’s behaviour is counted as scientific misconduct. The author of Plastic Fantastic has indicated through chapters in the book. Firstly, it started from the time Jan Hendrik Schön carried out his research in Konstanz as a graduate student. He was commencing to hide for the difficulty that he had gone through in the interpretation of his findings by making irregular alterations to the data in the third year of his PhD. And one of his earliest manipulations was adding clear peaks in the spectra graph of his photoluminescence measurement. Also, original or primary data were not saved or written in the lab-notebook properly during his PhD days. Secondly, when Hendrik Schön was employed by Bell Labs, he manipulated data sets of points, adding or moving these to create impressive and compelling results to support the idea of Bell Labs manager about testing the fundamental limits of plastic electronics, setting the stage for organic crystals collaboration. By doing that, he had pleased the new manager of the initial stage of his career at Bell Labs. Thirdly, he falsified data of field-effect transistor and organic materials which can conduct electrical currents. Many of his manipulated results of superconductivity and laser applications from his research on crystalline organic materials were published in prominent scientific journals including Nature and Science. Those published articles were eventually irreproducible and fabricated. Moreover, Schön claimed that he had created a molecularly scale organic transistor, which later gained global attention as this innovation was significant and the potential application was extremely huge. However, that work was also fictitious. Most of the devices or products from his research could not be replicated in other laboratories around the world.

Afterwards, investigators discovered that there were graphs in different articles or experimental conditions had the similar noise and pattern. The uncovering of this duplicate data triggered a series of reactions from the science community. And In the formal investigations, he could not show the raw data as well as laboratory notebooks. Digital data saved on the computer hard disk were also erased, which was reasoned by the limit of storage space. Additionally, samples from his experiments were not found or supposed to be discarded. Furthermore, to get his work to publish quickly, he not only manipulated his data but replied to peer-reviews recklessly from reviewers of the publisher. On the one hand, he tried to get an attention at the first glance from the editors, he made up his data so that images and graphs looked perfect, removed data points that contradicted to the prediction or disagreed to the hypothesis and used mathematical functions to replace real data set. He even substituted the entire images from other papers. Because he learned that the compelling figures and graphs would help publish his work in the catchy and high-profile paper. On the other hand, when his manuscript passed the editor’s assessment, it would transfer to reviewers, who are experts in the field. In this step, Schön usually failed to precisely answer questions from the reviewers. However, since peer reviewer responses mainly were positive and accepted with change and those changes were mostly minor revisions or less important. Therefore, the manuscripts were eventually published as both editors and reviewers assumed that authors would reply to reviewer enquiries in their forthcoming revisions. In a nutshell, Hendrik Schön’s behaviour is scientific misconduct and it fell into the category of the data fabrication and falsification.

Consequences of scientific misconducts to science and society

There will be several implications of scientific misconduct impacts on science and society through a lesson from Schön’s case. Scientific frauds are accountable for the possibility of harm to the public image of science as well as scientists. Usually, it is not easy for the public to understand and the boundary between science and science fiction is very closed in the eyes of the public. Moreover, people tend to believe more in news on mass media than in scientific journals except for research in clear and immediate applications. Therefore, exposure of the wrongdoings in science in newspapers or transparent investigation reports makes the situation worse. That is the confusion of scientific frauds affects the society. In fact, scientists are more seriously influenced by the misconducts of their colleagues. Before the fraudulent acts of Schön were exposed, many researchers lost their time, money and experienced unnecessary anxiety when they tried to replicate or carry out the fraudster work in their laboratory. Many had thought something bad about themselves and their future when they could not perform these experiments. In addition to these consequences, the scientific frauds create ambiguity amongst the scientific community. The more fabricated papers are investigated, the more disbeliefs are formed in the readers. More seriously, fraud in science practice is a hindrance for the development and improvement of human being’s knowledge and it alters the direction on which the science should be going.

Motives

As mentioned in the motivations caused scientific misconduct, the ease of fabrication plays an important role, which working environment can facilitate wrongdoings. The institutional factors are mainly responsible for fraudulent behaviours. In Schön case, a chain of events happened to Bell Labs which could be blamed for his misconducts. When Bell Labs was owned and managed by Lucent Technologies, it was no longer a public sector, which was an independent research and development unit but was private businesses orientation sector. That means Bell Labs, on the one hand, needed to meet scientific goals, but on the other hand, had to meet commercial goals. The pressures from fame and stock value put on scientists could lead them to guilty work. Pure science cannot go along with economic pressure as well as marketable and patentable outcomes from research. That happened when Bell Labs reorganized, and resources had shrunken, some commercial aims were set. Schön thought that he needs groundbreaking achievements to secure his appointment for a permanent position at Bell Labs, and eventually these dangerous thoughts had come true when he had fooled many eminent scientists for many times by his fake data.

Besides factors from the institution, it is necessary to mention that other factors such as the responsibility of publishers including journal editors, referees, or coauthors and colleagues should be involved and accountable for Schön’s misconduct. Among those above-mentioned people, partly, colleagues are blamed for the fraud. Firstly, Schön’s PhD and supervisors and managers at Bell Labs, who were extremely busy with their simultaneously administrative and scientific task. They did not have time to strictly follow Schön’s work and usually agreed with his perfect manipulated data without any doubt. Some of Schön’s coauthor did not seriously discuss experimental results from him on their prepared samples. There were also negligible interactions among coauthors before their research published, which created an easy condition for Schön to fabricate his data. In fact, internal checking and peer revisions of ground-breaking research should be done carefully before it goes onto publication. Sometimes, uninvolved scientific colleagues at Bell Labs or outside were suspect Schön manipulated images or graphs. However, many of them ignored these or did not seriously report to referees.

Denouement

From the fraudulent case of Hendrik Schön, scientific integrity lessons can be drawn for different levels from early stage researchers to eminent scientists, journal editors and institution managers. Causes or motivations should be thoroughly understood, and then learning about types of scientific misconduct is necessary for those whose start conducting scientific activities. Finally, serious consequences of fraud should have been warning frequently to raise the awareness of the wrongdoings in science.

As an early stage researcher (ESR), I also find a lot of useful information in this book as well as measures to avoid scientific misconducts. Firstly, the laboratory notebook and raw data should be recorded frequently and stored online with backup versions elsewhere. Secondly, in my research group, we have work discussion on Monday and sub-group meeting every week, which is relatively essential, as any outcomes or problems will be discussed and addressed. Even the smallest issue is also thoroughly considered, that can be a good practice to prevent from the ease of data fabrication. Thirdly, be aware that PhD life usually suffers from pressures that can lead to guilty behaviours. Therefore, a balance of work and life should be maintained, working hard and keeping the attempt on finishing the tasks as planned may help avoid unnecessary stress from the deadline. The last lesson is standing on the right things and voicing concerns when witnessing wrongdoings.

By | 2018-09-05T13:18:47+00:00 August 9th, 2018|Buu Minh Tran, NEWS, OUTREACH & COMMUNICATION|
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