Over the years I interacted a few times with a fellow researcher I met at meetings. He seemed to be a smart individual, and he was pursuing a line of research that was of interest to me, so I always wanted to know what he was up to and what ideas he had. Then a few years ago I was shocked to find out that the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) had found he had faked images and data which he included in two publications and three grant applications. The university for which the researcher worked did not renew his contract and he lost his job.
Scientists have failings and contradictions like all human beings. There are, of course, individuals with medical conditions that display pathological behavior, but the vast majority of scientists are normal persons who try to be honest. However, there are a certain number of them that under the career crushing pressures to show results for their work will proceed to manipulate or fake data. We will take a look today at some of those individuals.
The most common form of serious fraud in science is the forgery or recycling of data. In the years 2000 and 2001, Jan Schön, a German physicist working at Bell Labs (at the time part of Lucent Technologies) in New Jersey, US, astounded physicists with articles published in the world’s top journals describing the construction and operation of amazing devices such as an organic laser and the world’s smallest transistor. He was hailed a superstar and a genius, and his discoveries promised to usher a revolution in science and get him a Noble Prize. As the hype kept building up, many labs tried to reproduce his work and failed. Eventually, someone discovered that some of the data reported in one article was identical to the data reported in another article, but used in a different context. An internal investigation found he had faked the results for much of his work. Schön lost his job and was stripped of his doctorate. A combination of lax supervision and corporate troubles at Lucent had allowed Schön, who was working alone, free range to perpetrate his forgeries.
Unlike Schön, many dishonest scientists do not work alone, but they still manage to fool those that work with them, which can have serious consequences. Haruko Obokata was a researcher working at the Japanese Riken Center for Developmental Biology who stunned the world when she published research in 2014 indicating that a simple procedure could turn normal cells into pluripotent stem cells: cells that have the capacity to turn into any other cell type in the body. This result had huge implications for the field of restorative medicine, which aimed to replace old or damaged organs in patients with new organs grown in the lab from cells obtained from the same patients. Unfortunately, not only did other researchers fail to reproduce her work, but also someone noticed that some photographs in her research were similar to photographs in research she had previously published. The Riken institute performed an investigation and found that Obokata had falsified her work, and she resigned her position. In the wake of the scandal, one of her coauthors in the articles who was also her supervisor and mentor, Yoshiki Sasai, although cleared of wrongdoing, fell into a depressive state and committed suicide. Another of her coauthors in the articles, the American researcher, Charles Vacanti, famous for growing a cartilage structure in the shape of an ear on the side of a mouse, closed his lab and retired.
The title of the most dishonest scientist was held for a while by the German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt, who made a name for himself researching substances used to expand the volume of blood during surgery or during pathologies where blood volume is reduced. His research allegedly showed the benefits of some substances over others, and his work was instrumental in their adoption by some doctors. Eventually, people became suspicious as the numbers he reported proved to be too perfect, his results were not reproduced by others, and most of his clinical trials lacked approval by ethics committees. All in all 100 of Boldt’s published articles were found to be fraudulent.
Despite Boldt’s exploits in dishonesty, his record did not last long. Another anesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii, from Japan, made, his career researching treatments for nausea and vomiting after surgery. For two decades he published an uncanny number of studies. Even though concerns regarding his activity were raised several times, nothing ever came of it. Eventually, some skeptical scientists applied statistics to the numbers he reported and found patterns that were highly improbable. This triggered an investigation that found he had published fraudulent data in a whopping 172 of his articles! It has been suggested that he was able to get away with dishonesty for so long because of both the low impact of his research and the culture where he worked.
Some dishonest scientists don’t even bother to make up the data to pretend they performed a study. Craig Grimes, an American researcher from Penn State University, requested grants from the government to conduct research and then used some of the money for personal purposes. He eventually got caught and was sent to jail. And when it comes to publications, some dishonest scientists do not even bother with performing the research and writing it up. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Iraqi researcher Elia Alsabti plagiarized the work of other scientists and published it as if it had been his own. All in all he published close to 60 articles where he removed the name of the original authors and inserted his name and those of fictional coworkers.
There are dozens of cases every year of individuals who get punished for scientific dishonesty. In many cases, coworkers and students spot what they are doing and report them. In other cases, suspicions arise when other scientists can’t reproduce the results or notice irregularities in the data, tables, graphs, or figures. Because of this, most dishonest scientists eventually get caught. Dishonesty in science is something that can only survive if the research that is being faked is of such irrelevant nature that no one is interested in it. This of course begs the question of why anyone is funding this type of research. Unfortunately there are certain institutions that place more emphasis on number of publications instead of the real world impact of the research. However if the research is important, you can be certain that it will be scrutinized and dishonesty will be detected and weeded out. That is the nature of science.
The image by Nick Youngson from Alpha Stock Images is used under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.