Monday, October 23, 2006

Anatomy of a scientific fraud


Cross-posted at nanopolitan 2.0.

Just drop everything, and read the NYTimes story 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.

5 Comments:

  1. Tabula Rasa said...

    wow.

  2. ANANDASWARUP said...

    From the second part of your post:
    "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."
    Strangely similar practices are common in mathematics too. For example, announcing results without proofs, possibly to preempt others. Sometimes the results or 'possible proofs' turn out be wrong. Generally people seem to put up with these things (remember Perelman's remarks) since usually it is a mixed bag of good, bad and routine results and people depend on each other for invitations, referees for students etc. Sometimes indifferent and wrong theses are pushed through with the help of friends.
    When I raised these questions a few years ago, a friendly mathematician's response was "Mathematicians too are a part of the society; you are expecting too high standards from them".
    I guess that in sciences more related to reality, bad stuff will eventually disappear though there is some waste in the process (but not too many are getting killed).

  3. Sharique said...

    I can understand that no one bothers to check results when you try to publish (well i can give you few references where the author manipulated the results..but then they call it mathematical adjustment) but then what were other researchers doing?? I am surprised that no one did!

  4. Abi said...

    TR, Swarup, Sharique: Thanks for your comments.

    Swarup: I'm certain that no field is immune from the kind of shananigans -- big and small -- described in the article's author and you. As you said, bad stuff is weeded out in the long run. In the meantime, however, some real damage is inflicted on science and fellow-scientists. And people are all too willing to cut corners to protect friendships, conference invitations, citations and yes, a chance at awards!

    Sharique: Here's a relevant quote from the article:

    Some scientists believe that his ability to beat the system for so long had as much to do with the research topics he chose as with his aggressive tactics. His work was prominent, but none of his studies broke new scientific ground. (This may also be why no other scientists working in the field have retracted papers as a result of Poehlman’s fraud.) By testing undisputed assumptions on popular topics, Poehlman attracted enough attention to maintain his status but not enough to invite suspicion. Moreover, replicating his longitudinal data would be expensive and difficult to do.


    This, then, is the reason for the others to not follow up on Poehlman's studies. On the other hand, both Schoen and Hwang got caught sooner because their work was in a hot field, where a lot of people were trying to replicate their findings. More importantly, because of the hotness of their work, the papers went through a level of scrutiny that papers in other, more mundane fields do not receive.

  5. Sharique said...

    Ah, he was smart and thats what it takes to produce so many papers