Anatomy of a scientific fraud

Just drop everything, and read the NYTimes story (mixed with some analysis) about Eric Poehlman’s fraud which made him “only the second scientist in the United States to face criminal prosecution for falsifying research data.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

On a rainy afternoon in June, Eric Poehlman stood before a federal judge in the United States District Court in downtown Burlington, [Vermont]. His sentencing hearing had dragged on for more than four hours, and Poehlman, dressed in a black suit, remained silent while the lawyers argued over the appropriate sentence for his transgressions. Now was his chance to speak. A year earlier, in the same courthouse, Poehlman pleaded guilty to lying on a federal grant application and admitted to fabricating more than a decade’s worth of scientific data on obesity, menopause and aging, much of it while conducting clinical research as a tenured faculty member at the University of Vermont. He presented fraudulent data in lectures and in published papers, and he used this data to obtain millions of dollars in federal grants from the National Institutes of Health — a crime subject to as many as five years in federal prison. Poehlman’s admission of guilt came after more than five years during which he denied the charges against him, lied under oath and tried to discredit his accusers. By the time Poehlman came clean, his case had grown into one of the most expansive cases of scientific fraud in U.S. history.

The following paragraph, which appears in the second part of the long article, sums up the problem:

The scientific process is meant to be self-correcting. Peer review of scientific journals and the ability of scientists to replicate one another’s results are supposed to weed out erroneous conclusions and preserve the integrity of the scientific record over time. But the Poehlman case shows how a committed cheater can elude detection for years by playing on the trust — and the self-interest — of his or her junior colleagues.

Two other high profile cases of fraud in recent times — Hendrik Schön and Hwang Woo Suk — also make an appearance in the NYTimes story:

Most people involved in Poehlman’s case say that fraud as extensive as his represents an uncommon pathology, similar to what drove the South Korean scientist who claimed to have cloned human stem cells or the Lucent Technologies physicist who falsified extensive amounts of nanotechnology data. More frequent, according to a study published in Nature in June 2005, are smaller lapses in ethical judgment, like failing to present data that contradicts your previous research or inappropriately assigning author credit. Brian Martinson, who conducted that study with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, suggests that those gray areas, which many scientists inhabit at one time or another during their careers, portend a greater ailment for the scientific process. Minor transgressions, largely undetected and easily rationalized, can build up like plaque, compromising scientific integrity over time.

Do read the whole thing. It’s long, but well worth it.

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