NYTimes’ bungled analysis of fraud in science

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 [1])
  • And, of course, the Hwang Woo Suk disaster involving human cloning experiment. (see footnote [2])

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.”

and

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.

***

[1] Read this piece in the British Medical Journal for more information on the Canadian and Indian studies referred to by the article.

[2] To the list of scientific frauds compiled by Altman and Broad, we may add this and this.

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4 thoughts on “NYTimes’ bungled analysis of fraud in science

  1. Are they serious? Given Gerry Schatten’s role in this whole mess, I’m amazed that anyone would suggest that this is a result of non-U.S. scientists not embracing U.S. ethical norms. Indeed, it seems more likely to me that this kind of situation arises because of tensions between scientific aims and capitalistic ones (i.e., money and fame start seeming more important than the truth).

  2. Abi, just two anecdotes about NYTimes handling scientific news. In 1979, the Armenian computer scientist L. G. Khachiyan (who passed away this year) came up with a polynomial time algorithm for linear programming. It was a big breakthrough in terms of computational complexity, but the NYT published it on the frontpage as a “Breakthrough in problem solving”. They claimed that we could now solve problems lightning quickly, which would have taken hundreds of years otherwise. Of course, all these claims were totally wrong. They even wrote that the Travelling salesman problem can be solved now, which is not the case. Later, when tests revealed that the algorithm was not as fast in practice, NYT wrote that the Soviet claims were not so good after all. Soviet claims? Khachiyan never claimed anything!!

    The same thing happened in 1984 when Narendra Karmarkar came up with his new algorithm for linear programming.

  3. I remember a letter written by many scientists from the USA, including
    Nobel Laureates (correct me if I am wrong) writing to the President of India,
    Dr. A. P. J. Kalam, which among other things said, “During the last two decades,
    a new generation of extremely talented Indian physicists have won broad international respect and brought great recognition to Indian physics. It would be a pity if the actions of a few plagiarists should damage the high international reputation of Indian science…”., at the time of one infamous plagiarism scandal.
    First of all, it must be noted that the entire scandal came to light
    due to the efforts of Indian physicists who have strived to keep up high ethical
    standards. This entire effort is logged in the site http://www.geocities.com/physics_plagiarism
    Do not miss the obnoxious and patronizing tone of the letter of these learned
    white men and women. However, I was planning to write a letter at that time
    to George Bush saying, “while we have noted the rather high output and worthwhile
    leadership provided by your academic institutions and industrial research centres,
    I am hopeful that the Schon scandal will not discourage younger scientists from
    pursuing science as a meaningful career.” One must pay them back in their
    own coin.

  4. Dr. Free-Ride, Vishnu, Anant: thanks for your comments.

    DFR: money and fame start seeming more important than the truth

    I would add the pressure to perform. More specific to this case would be what Myers suggested: pressure to produce a specified outcome.

    I am all for putting in place investigative mechanisms; but, these mechanisms kick in *after* the fraud is uncovered. More important than them would be those that prevent fraud. Those that jack up the price of fraud.

    The other charge that ‘some of these countries’ are reluctant to investigate their heroes is just a load of bull. See my response to Anant below.

    Vishnu: Thanks for adding several more examples of NYTimes’ sloppiness in reporting and analyzing science news.

    Anant: Interestingly, in this episode as well, the preliminary groundwork for uncovering this fraud was done by the Korean scientists themselves. So, the reporters going on about how it is difficult to get all these ‘other countries’ to straighten themselves up is all completely misguided.

    Your letter sounds good. Make use of the next opportunity to send it.

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