Scientists love good gossip as much as any ‘Us’-magazine reader, and we take the same car-wreck interest in seeing our lofty demagogues topple in disgrace. The ‘Huang stem cell scandal’s’ shame infected not only the fraudulent scientists involved, but also the journal that published his unsubstantiated work. A new scandal of a similar ilk involving a German physicist is underway, with a retraction of a staggering 21 papers from Science, Nature, and Physical Review. Are these journals to blame for the sloppy science they publish, and is it a syndrome of a larger problem: top journals want ‘sexy, if risky, science’ over ‘boring but solid science.’
When a leading scientific journal publishes a hoax once, it is a tragedy. When it happens twice, it starts to look like bias.
Act 1: breakthrough research in leading journals; a photogenic scientist; tributes from colleagues for his brilliance, originality and speed. Act 2: unreproducible experiments; suspicious data; editors withdrawing articles. Act 3: scientist skulking in disgrace; editors vowing “Never again!”.
Who is the star of this tragedy? Hwang Woo-suk, the South Korean veterinary scientist whose faked reports about cloned human embryos stunned the world and who subsequently was unmasked as a manipulative fraud a year ago at this time? No, Hwang only published fake research in one journal, Science.
We’re talking about another fraudster, Jan Hendrik Schön, a 30-something scientist from Germany working at Bell Laboratories. Back in 2002, his papers about condensed matter physics featured on the covers of both Nature and Science. Had this work been authentic, it would have revolutionised electronics. But it wasn’t. After Schön was unmasked, Science, Nature and Physical Review felt compelled to withdraw an incredible number of papers — 21! — of which he had been the author.
Deliberate fraud is difficult to detect. However, every step forward in science is provisional until it is reproduced. A fraudulent paper will be impossible to reproduce and eventually a rogue researcher will receive his comeuppance. However, when Schön’s fraud came to light, a number of scientists asked whether factors other than misconduct had been at work. They pointed the finger at the journals themselves. “Nature’s editorial and refereeing policy seems to be influenced by the newsworthiness of the work, not necessarily its quality,” complained Philip Anderson, a Nobel laureate at Princeton University who has been called most creative physicist in the world. “And Science seems to be caught up in a similar syndrome.”
Coincidence or bias? Read the rest and let me know what you think.