Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Fool ‘Nature’ Twice, Shame on Who?

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.

Comments

  1. #1 anon
    December 11, 2006

    Hell yes. The other side of this story, which doesn’t make quite so much press, is how a lot of solid and interesting work gets bounced from even moderately prestigious journals (e.g. JN) because the authors haven’t claimed to have solved the brain.

  2. #2 K.N.Singh
    December 11, 2006

    What I think is that you will NEVER know how many frauds there have been or if they have all come to light.

    Your assumption that they always will come to light is simply a faith commitment.

    I KNOW this shit goes on in univeristies, as so much grant money is involved.

    Truly, scientists have demonstrated that there is NOTHING they won’t do.

    Although your abilities intrigue me, you are quite honestly inferior…mentally, physically.

    Oh, there has been technical advancement, but how little man himself has changed.

    You see, if you improve a mechanical device, you increase procuctivity…but improve MAN, and you gain a thousand fold.

    Yes, it appears that WE will do well in this century.

    [Shelley's edit: I thought about deleting this or changing it in humorous ways, however I think insanity like this should be exhibited in its unabashed perverse weirdness sans edits. :)]

  3. #3 Chris
    December 11, 2006

    The Schon disgrace is old news – it happened long before the stem cell disgrace. The best part about Schon’s case is that he submitted the exact same graph for three unrelated articles! He just relabeled the axes, and in one case rotated the graph 90 degrees.

    So not only was he a fraud, but he was an incredibly lazy fraud. More on Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hendrik_Sch%C3%B6n

  4. #4 Johan
    December 11, 2006

    In the end, the practice of independent replication will ensure that the truth wins out. It is relatively easy for a researcher to forge data (or simply manipulate it slightly in the direction of his/her hypothesis). And it is extremely difficult to spot this, unless you use the same forged data set twice, as Cyril Burt did.

    Yet, results which are not replicated do eventually get ignored. As a researcher you can buy yourself a temporary advantage by claiming something extraordinary, and if you play your cards right, you will not be exposed as a fraud. But give it two or three years, and whatever credibility you had is lost, as your colleagues fail to replicate your findings.

    It’s beyond me how people can trade their long-term careers for such temporary advantages.

  5. #5 anon
    December 11, 2006

    1. this is old news

    2. the chaff gets weeded out eventually

    3. science, and i would argue even more so nature, have long been into publishing name-brand sexy science and screw the details. your odds of getting into those journals without getting boosted in by part of the club is about 0.00001%. it has nothing to do with quality. and why aren’t we as scientists more suspicious about nature, which isn’t even non-profit or part of a scientific society?

  6. #6 Kagehi
    December 11, 2006

    Yes, it appears that WE will do well in this century.

    Who the hell is “WE” Mr. Singh? Because if you are referring to religion perhaps, then history is stacked against you. Religion has generally made people “worse”, which is why you find assholes like Kent Hovind trying to teach “morals” to other people in jail, while still failing to comprehend why what *he* did wasn’t moral. Its why whenever the church gains complete control over nations the first thing they do is start burning books they don’t like, then wondering why the hell no no can cure the huge plague that start killing millions of people. Its why secularists don’t fracking fly airplanes into the sides of buildings to reach “paradise” as “holy warriors”. Get real. Religion has far more frauds and liers than science does in it, and always has. The difference is, in science if you lie you get fired, in religion, if you lie you get a congregation and pats on the back from clueless idiots and fundamentalists. If the world goes to hell, its going to be some asshole with religious convictions leading the march, just like with Hitler, and it will take us centuries to recover science and reason from it, just like it did when the church banned all medical practices that had been used since Roman and even Egyption times, in favor of leaches and trepaning. In fact, some idiot tried to call trepaning a mistake of “science” a while ago. The Romans didn’t use it, save to releave “pressure” the same way we still do, it took the fracking church to invent the idea that all disease was caused by ill humors and evil spirits, therefor rejecting thousands of years of “pagan” medical techniques and medications, in favor of drilling holes in everyone’s heads to “fix” them.

    Sorry, but religion hasn’t “improved” man one bit. The only thing its ever done is provide a safe haven for liers and frauds, who sell snake oil improvements to gullible sheep, who are just as happy to burn the neighbor on a cross to “improve the world” as feed the hungry, all depending on how scared the fraud and lier they follow is of truth the neighbor is yelling at the closed, exclusionary and egotistically driven, churches doors.

  7. #7 Shaun
    December 12, 2006

    Do people get grants to replicate and verify studies?
    When a group of scientists replicate another group’s study, where do they publish it?
    This is one of the things that seems odd to me. Whenever I’ve seen an experiment described, no details about replication have ever been included, even in a footnote. Although, I have read some studies that went over old terrain first, before progressing on to study something more – is this what is meant by a study being replicated?

  8. #8 Mike
    December 15, 2006

    It appears rather tricky, to say the least, to get a paper published or get funding to replicate exactly someone else’s experiment – normally you have to do something slightly different. A complementary analysis technique, or a related system, but not exactly the same.

  9. #9 Lab Lemming
    December 19, 2006

    anon:
    We scientists admire Nature as the best scienfe fiction magazine currently in publication.

    Johan:
    I know of reviews who have spotted suspicious, and possibly fraudulent work duing the review process. The editors ignored their complaints. After all, they have much more to gain by publishing, then retracting on the front page, then they do by killing garbage quietly in review.