It can’t happen here. That’s what most scientists will tell you about fraud in science. Science is magically self-correcting, fraudsters are isolated incidents, fraud is something that happens in those other professions. Well, they’re all wrong, as Horace Freeland Judson shows in his new book The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. While estimates of fraud — faking evidence, omitting or distorting evidence, and plagiarism — are naturally hard to come by, even very conservative studies place it as high as 10% — a staggering number to those who place their trust in Science.
Judson is at various times a historian, philosopher, sociologist, journalist, and student of science, but he combines all this into a detailed book that combines the best of each field — the journalism is thrilling and readable, the science accurate, the history and social causes analyzed, and so on. Judson seems to know everything about the subject — he’s at every major event, he interviews every major figure at their home, and so on. The result is a through book.
The book traces the cultural context of fraud, analyzes the history of fraud (Mendel, Darwin, Pasteur, Freud — all committed fraud to some extent), gives a very detailed description of many modern cases of fraud (including a whole chapter on the famed “Baltimore affair”), then discusses the problems of peer review and authorship, which most people think prevent fraud, then onto the future of science with open access publications on the Internet, and closing with how institutions can respond to end fraud.
Judson paints a picture of a scientific community that is trapped in its own sense of infallibility. Whistleblowers brings evidence fraud to the university president and he (almost always a he) brushes them off saying “it doesn’t happen here”. And anyway, science is self-correcting. The whistleblower goes public and gets fired — they’re inventing a fuss, tarnishing the name of the university. The government’s Office of Research Integrity investigates and concludes it is fraud but the case is appealed to a board of lawyers who don’t understand the science, are not allowed to look at the scientific evidence, and almost always overturn the case, making specious arguments like “if this data was fraudulent, it wouldn’t look so messy”. Even in the rare case when fraud is generally conceded, all the usual figures trot out the usual “few bad apples” claim — the rest of science is just fine, they say. When Congress dares hold hearings on the matter, the scientists being questioned rile up their colleagues by claiming that government is attacking scientific freedom.
So, in the end, the whistleblower ends up disgraced and unemployed, usually viciously attacked in public. The fraudster might have to go to another university or even retire early if it’s really bad. And the department head who let it happen under him gets no blame and so has no incentive to change things. And so fraud goes on, uninvestigated, unimpeded.
What’s the fraud like? A few examples:
William T. Summerlin (chief of transplantation immunology at Sloan-Kettering) claimed he could transplant onto animals corneas, glands, and skin that would normally be rejected — sometimes even across species. He was discovered only after three years of this when a lab assistant noticed that the black “skin graphs” were drawn on with a marker (all the rest of his work turned out to be fake as well).
John Long (a resident) studied Hodgkins’s cell lines at Mass General in collaboration with MIT. A year later, a junior colleague charge fraud and it was discovered that the cell lines were from monkeys and healthy people.
Elias A. K. Alsabti (a researcher at Boston University) had published sixty papers by his mid-twenties, when it turned out that most of them were papers published in obscure foreign journals with only slight changes (like a new title).
Vijay Soman, an assistant professor at Yale, was asked to peer review a paper by Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard. He sent back a negative review, delaying publication, then turned around and submitted the same paper to another journal. He was found out when, in an amazing twist of fate, Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard was asked to peer review Soman’s paper and recognized it as her own.
John Darsee had published dozens of papers with completely made up data — and done an incredibly bad job making up the data. (One paper claimed a father had four children — conceived when he was 8, 9, 11, and 12 years old, respectively.) To cover up this fact, Darsee had practiced “gift authorship” — adding people as co-authors even when they didn’t do any work. Darsee had been at Harvard for three years before he was discovered by some postdocs, even then it took the university five months to admit the fraud.
Stephen Breuning (University of Pittsburgh) studied the long-term effects of certain tranquilizers on mentally ill patients. His research found they were seriously damaging the patients and it causes mental hospitals to change procedures. Two years later, Breuning’s mentor at the University of Illinois began to suspect that Breuning couldn’t possibly have time to do all the work he claimed to be doing. — and sure enough he made it up. Sparague (the senior of the two, remember) sent a report to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which funded Breuning. Breuning was forced to resign and NIMH appointed an investigator — who proceed to investigate Sprague. Seeing that Breuning’s work was not being investigated and corrected, Sprague went public. His federal funding was cancelled. Sprague was asked to testify before Congress, in response the University of Pittsburgh threatened a libel suit.
That’s a small sample — the cases go on and on. Kudos to Judson for shedding light on a topic few know even exists.