Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Christian Science Monitor asks: why lie?

The Christian Science Monitor looks at the procedure of submission of a manuscript to a journal, but doesn't comment much on what happens afterwards, such as when the journal does not investigate pending patent applications or accusations that the work is wrong or fraudulent. Thus, there is no comment about what happens to the "rubbish" known to have been published.

The Monitor posits that Hwang-gate may have been the biggest scientific fiasco since the supposed discovery of cold fusion in 1989, carefully skipping over the work of Jan-Hendrik Schon of Bell Labs, which wasted millions of dollars of federal research funds.

As to "why lie," Schon and Hwang may have been counting on "real science" catching up to their "science fiction" before their fiction was recognized as such. In that world, the true enabler would be counted only as the second person on the scene.

As to traction from the current Hwang issue, one notes that the American Chemical Society did essentially nothing after the Schon matter, although the American Physical Society did tighten rules on co-author responsibility. Patents were not a big issue in the Schon matter, because Bell Labs withdrew them immediately after the Beasley report. Patents are going to be a big thing in Hwang-gate. Schatten is not withdrawing his application, and Hwang's may not be withdrawn either. Stay tuned for a turbulent ride.

from the Monitor on 21 Feb. 06:

Why lie? Fraudsters sometimes yield to the temptation to exaggerate their results to gain the eye of editors at top scientific journals. Acceptance for publication can boost careers and win fresh funding for future projects.

Editors of scientific journals are in the midst of soul-searching, asking what they can do to reduce such transgressions. "Even the very best journals have published rubbish they wish they'd never published at all," says Richard Smith, former editor of BMJ (British Medical Journal), in the current issue of The Scientist.

Editors of prominent journals receive thousands of submissions and have neither the time nor funds to duplicate experiments or investigate articles with the thoroughness of a detective or a courtroom prosecutor. The time-honored process of peer review, in which potential articles are sent to experts in the given field for secret vetting, is itself under fire.

So what can be done?

Fortunately, scientists aren't scam artists who disappear and reemerge with another identity. Their conclusions eventually will be tested by others. If the results can't be duplicated, their research loses credibility, and they ultimately face ostracism.

Computer programs are beginning to be used to check if data contains suspect patterns or an image has been altered. All the authors of a paper should reveal exactly what their role has been and accept responsibility for the findings. Peer reviewers should reveal if they have any conflicts of interest.

In addition, courses on ethics and integrity in research should be given higher prominence in college science programs and at research firms. (A recent study found that half of today's US college students admit to serious cheating on written assignments.)

The British government is introducing a code of scientific ethics next month that will call on scientists to act with "rigor, respect, and responsibility" and to present findings honestly and accurately.

It's important for citizens to feel that scientists have made their highest motive the quest for knowledge and the advancement of the public good - not fame or personal gain.


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