Today’s NYTimes article by Lawrence Altman and William Broad traces the history of fraud in science with a view to identify the underlying causes. Not surprisingly, l’affaire Hwang is the immediate provocation.
It is chilling to read the long list of high profile cases of scientific misconduct:
- “In the early 1980’s, a young cardiology researcher, Dr. John R. Darsee, was found to have fabricated much data for more than 100 papers he wrote while working at Harvard and Emory Universities. His work appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and The American Journal of Cardiology, among other top publications.”
- “In 1999, federal investigators found that a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., faked what had been hailed as crucial evidence linking power lines to cancer. He published his research in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and F.E.B.S. Letters …”
- “The year 2002 proved especially bleak. At Bell Labs, a series of extraordinary claims that seemed destined to win a Nobel Prize, including the creation of molecular-scale transistors, suddenly collapsed. Two of the world’s most prestigious journals, Science and Nature, had published many of the fraudulent papers, underscoring the need for better safeguards despite two decades of attempted repairs.”
- “… serious doubts about the truthfulness of published studies done in Canada and India.” (see footnote )
- And, of course, the Hwang Woo Suk disaster involving human cloning experiment. (see footnote )
Given so many high profile frauds emanating from the US laboratories, one would think that these guys would at least display some caution when they discuss frauds that have taken place in other countries. No such luck! Here are two representative paragraphs:
“The Korean case shows us that we should be a lot more cautious,” Marcel C. LaFollette, the author of “Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing,” said in an interview. “We have been unwilling to ask tough questions of people who are from other countries and whose systems are different because we were attempting to be polite.”
Experts now say that the explosive growth of science around the globe has made the problem far worse, because most countries have yet to institute the extra measures that the United States has put in place. That imbalance is at least partly responsible for a rise in scientific scandals in other countries, they say.
One really has to admire the strength of their faith in the “extra measures that the United States has put in place”. Don’t get me wrong, here; I am all for instituting them in India and other countries. However, shouldn’t these guys look at why frauds continue to happen in the US labs, in spite of these “extra measures”? After all, it is possible that the “extra measures” have no deterrent value at all in checking fraud in high impact research; and if so, we should be looking elsewhere. Is it even necessary to see the Hwang affair through the lens of “US vs. the rest”, when such a view could lead to a misdiagnosis of the underlying cause?
So, what makes the misconduct in high impact cases different from that in low profile cases? P.Z. Myers offers a possible answer.
 Read this piece in the British Medical Journal for more information on the Canadian and Indian studies referred to by the article.