Why scientific practice can fall short of the ethical ideal.

Introduction

Science is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. The discoveries, innovations and healthcare improvements yielded since the beginning of curiosity are astonishing. Science relies on its unique method and its established codes of conduct to ensure the data it provides is of the highest quality, and our best representation of the world around us. Honesty is imperative for science and the integrity of its claims. Important extensions of this honesty are the abstention from plagiarism and respecting fellow researchers by acknowledging their contributions at every opportunity. Openness is another important aspect which entails publishing your findings, subject to peer review, and retaining raw data for anyone that is inclined to look deeper[1]. Despite these ideals being adhered to by the majority, like nature itself, there are cheats that try to leapfrog the competition. I shall discuss two examples of where the scientific ideals have been abused for personal gain.

Jan Hendrik Schön

Jan Hendrik Schön was thought of as one of the brightest young physicists to emerge in the new millennium. Between 2000 and 2002 he published 20 articles, 13 of which were published in prestigious journals Science and Nature. This is truly a remarkable achievement but his dazzling statistics didn’t end there. He was averaging 4-5 papers a month and his best effort saw him publish 7 in November 2001. His astonishing turnover of scientific literature did not affect the quality as brilliant discoveries were churned out one after the other[2]. To put this in perspective a great scientist may publish in the top end journals a dozen times in their life. Even theoretical scientists, with no data production constraints, rarely publish 7 papers in a year. Schön’s field of research was “molecular electronics” and the goal of this field is to reduce the size of computer chips down to that of single molecules. His discoveries included the manufacturing of nanoscale transistors and organic plastics for use as superconductors. Science described one of his papers as the “breakthrough of the year” in 2001[2]. His success brought him international admiration, he was a modern genius; it was almost too good to be true.                                                                                                              

jan-hendrik-schon-photo-3

Jan Hendrik Shön

 

Suspicions over the integrity of Schön’s work first arose when a fellow expert pointed out some glaring obscurities. His data appeared unrealistic because it mimicked the theoretical outcome. For example some of his data was predicted to follow a bell shaped curve and it did, but to comical accuracy[2]. There were no outliers or signs of experimental noise. If anyone asked to see his raw data he told them he deleted it to save space on his computer. Fascinated peers asked him to show them a demonstration of his discoveries, to which he would decline because his equipment resided in his old German laboratory[2].

Further investigation in 2002 revealed that Schön was nothing but a sophisticated and elaborate fraud. Malcolm Beasley, a professor from Stanford University, lead the investigations and found that Schön had breached the scientific codes of conduct and was guilty of substituting data, producing data of unrealistic precision and results that contradicted known physics[2]. He extensively fabricated data, reusing graphs and changing the labelled axis to appear as though many different materials had achieved similar results. His heavily manipulated data was poorly disguised by the absence of raw data. These blatant examples of scientific misconduct were exhibited in 16 of his 24 papers. The remaining 6 were deemed troubling if not intentionally fraudulent[2]. So how did these papers ever get published, let alone in the top journals in which they did?

It is believed that the peer review process actually helped Schön’s forgery. The criticisms his papers received provided the information he required to produce a perfect piece of work. By fabricating the missing components he won over many skeptics[2]. It appears that the timing of Schön’s rise also aided him no end. Science and Nature were looking to expand their horizons and publish more papers regarding fields outside of medical research. Materials science certainly filled this void. Schön’s articles were even fast-tracked through the peer review process being published 25% faster than the average. In one case his paper was seen by a single referee[2]. This careless approach by these top journals is eye-opening and highlights the necessity for vigilant peer reviewing with an appropriate number of referees.

In addition to the lowered guard at the top journals, Schön’s employers were under extreme pressure at the time. Bell Labs was in a troubling financial state and had laid off 50% of their staff between 1997 and 2001[2]. Middle management with little lab experience were brought in to tackle these corporate troubles. In light of the financial unrest it is conceivable to see how Schön’s wrongdoings could be overlooked by the desperate company. Schön was churning out gold for very little input costs[2]. The miracle papers appeared to be just that to the heads at Bell Labs. Fortunately the out of hand facade came to an end and Schön’s fraudulent papers were retracted.

The social implications of the Schön scandal did not really stretch further than the academic community. This is not always the case and scientific scandals can have a huge external effect with long term consequences.

Annie Dookhan

Annie Dookhan was a forensic chemist who worked for the Department of Public Health in Massachusetts. She worked at the Hinton state laboratory in Jamaica plain, for nine years from 2003. Her biggest responsibility was to weigh and test drugs found as evidence. Due to the dependence of sentence length on the quantity and category of drugs found, Dookhan’s results would directly affect the courts and the guilty. Mistakes could easily lead to illegitimate incarceration of the prosecuted[3,4].

In 2011 it was noted that 90 drug samples given as evidence were incorrectly recorded. This sparked investigation into the Hinton laboratory and led to its closure in 2012. Dookhan had her evidence handling duties revoked yet she continued to testify in court.  Two weeks before the police ordered the closure of her laboratory Dookhan resigned[3].  The 36 year old was taken to court and pleaded guilty to “27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence.” She went on to confess her fabrication of test results, mixing of samples and lying under oath[4]. Ironically her motif for these crimes was the desire to boost her professional profile and reputation. Her actions not only cost her freedom for 3-5 years but also her marriage.

Annie Dookhan, a former chemist at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute, listens to the judge during her arraignment at Brockton Superior Court in Brockton, Massachusetts

Annie Dookhan

 

It is believed Dookhan was involved in more than 40,000 cases during her time at the Hinton laboratory[4]. The repercussions of her irresponsibility are ongoing for the Massachusetts legal system. A huge number of defendants are demanding release and retrial. By November 2013 the courts have spent $8.5 million on the reviewing of cases and a further $8.6 million has been set aside for the same function. Of the 600 released prisoners approximately 13% have recommitted. The worst of these was a drug-related murder[4]. It is predicted that further release of prisoners will lead to a crime wave but the courts’ hands are tied by their need to fulfill fair justice requirements[4]. As of July 2014 only 8900 of the 40,000 cases had been assessed by lawyers[5]. Dookhan has left the Massachusetts legal system in turmoil.Thousands of people could be unfairly suffering and paying for crimes they didn’t commit, furthermore many legitimate criminals may take advantage of the situation and instigate their release. Dookhan’s actions are a vivid example of how disregard for the ethical ideals of science can have lasting effects on the wider society and even safety of the public. Abuses like this lead to public unrest and mistrust of scientific professionals.

Conclusion

Mistrust of science is growing within society and this is partly down to frauds like Dookhan and Schön. This growing unrest is stimulated by the fact that scientific misconduct is more alluring to journalists than plain scientific discovery. Scandals are always an interesting read but they portray science in an unfair light. This does not mean that the offenders should be ignored, but their minority should be reiterated. As we have seen from the Schön scandal, quite shockingly, that even the top journals can be guilty of relaxed protocols. The scientific community, funding bodies, institutions and journals need to be more vigilant.

The reason for the forgery seen in these cases was the potential personal gain acquired from their success. The temptation of recognition clearly outweighed the moral justification for these two. For me the Dookhan case is the most alarming. Her complete disregard for the knock on effects of her forgery is beyond me. The lives she has effected is incalculable. One light of optimism that can be taken from these cases and many others is that the frauds are often ousted. Sooner or later they get caught.

 

Sources

  1. , (2013). BBSRC Statement on Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/organisation/policies/position/policy/good-scientific-practice.aspx
    (Accessed 27/11/14).
  2. D. (2009). Physics and Pixie Dust. American Scientist.
    http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/physics-and-pixie-dust
    (Accessed 1/12/14).
  3. M. J. (2012). State says chemist at drug lab imperilled evidence. The Boston Globe.
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2012/08/30/problems-uncovered-with-state-drug-lab-jamaica-plain-state-police-plan-news-conference/zHsjfZxigQVCxwRHM3Gd2I/story.html
    (Accessed 5/12/14).
  4. M. J., Ellement. J. R. (2013). Annie Dookhan pleads guilty in drug lab scandal. The Boston Globe. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/11/22/annie-dookhan-former-state-chemist-who-mishandled-drug-evidence-agrees-plead-guilty/7UU3hfZUof4DFJGoNUfXGO/story.html
    (Accessed 6/12/14).
  5. L. (2014). Thousands in Annie Dookhan cases still not identified. The Boston Globe.
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/07/19/lawyers-unable-identify-majority-defendants-dookhan-cases/8m97zHbhPcy7VHSMoyhehI/story.html
    (Accessed 6/12/14).
  6. Picture; Jan Hendrik Schön.
    Active Science via Google images.
    https://activescience.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/jan-hendrik-schon-photo-3.jpg
    (Accessed 7/12/14)
  7. Picture; Annie Dookhan. Reuters Media via Google images. http://s1.reutersmedia.net/resources/r/?m=02&d=20130204&t=2&i=700775387&w=580&fh=&fw=&ll=&pl=&r=CBRE9131GON00
    (Accessed 7/12/14)
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