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Targeting Fraud

Case studies provide the framework for examining the ultimate sin in science

by William G. Schulz
June 14, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 24

ON FACT AND FRAUD: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science,
by David Goodstein, Princeton University Press, 2010, 184 pages, $22.95 cloth (ISBN13: 978-0-691-13966-1)
by David Goodstein, Princeton University Press, 2010, 184 pages, $22.95 cloth (ISBN13: 978-0-691-13966-1)

Scientists are quick to point out that, given the scope of worldwide scientific activity, fraud is quite a rare occurrence. While that is true, it's also important to acknowledge that fraud does happen and with some regularity. In many instances, a wide circle of people and institutions are damaged by this ultimate sin in science. A thorough understanding of scientific fraud and other types of research misconduct is essential to anyone who must deal with these often complex cases.

To that end, "On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science," by David Goodstein, a professor of physics at California Institute of Technology, should prove enormously helpful. It is a short, engaging book-filled with many case studies, some from Goodstein's own institute-that will bring readers up-to-date with how scientific fraud is defined today and the conditions that can set the stage for it to happen. The book can be read in an afternoon or so.

Research administrators, department chairs, journal editors-anyone concerned with research ethics will benefit from Goodstein's experience and insights. The book ought to be required reading for graduate students embarking on a career in science.

As the book's title suggests, Goodstein is a veteran of the front lines of science. From 1988 to 2007, he was vice provost at Caltech, where he was in charge of all cases of alleged scientific misconduct that arose there. What's more, he helped design and teach a course on scientific ethics that covered fraud and other forms of research misconduct. He is well-known in science policy circles for his expertise on these matters.

Grounded in the philosophy of science as expounded by numerous thinkers since the 17th century, the book also looks at how modern science and its reward systems actually work today. Goodstein makes clear that few scientists are in it for the money and that monetary reward is practically never a motive in cases of scientific fraud.

And he reminds us that scientific fraud is nothing new. The book begins with the famous Piltdown Man hoax that was perpetrated in England around 1910. Though the human cranium/ape jaw combo was long rejected by anthropologists, it wasn't until 1954 that modern dating methods showed conclusively that the artifact wasn't much older than its initial discovery.

Goodstein then briefly lists a more recent series of frauds, one of which went undetected long enough that conclusions derived from it formed the basis of protocols for treating patients with the drug Ritalin. His point is that the self-correcting nature of science doesn’t always protect the scientific enterprise from fraud “because injecting falsehoods into the body of science is rarely, if ever, the purpose of those who perpetrate fraud. They almost always believe that they are injecting a truth into the scientific record … but without going through all the trouble that the real scientific method demands.”

"Fraud, or misconduct," Goodstein writes, "means dishonest professional behavior characterized by the intent to deceive-the very antithesis of ethical behavior in science." In nearly all recent cases, he continues, three motives or risk factors have been present: Perpetrators were under career pressure; knew, or thought they knew, what the answer to the problem they were considering would turn out to be if they went to all the trouble of doing the work properly; and were working in a field where individual experiments are not expected to be precisely reproducible.

Credit: Newscom
Fleischmann (left) and Pons
Credit: Newscom
Fleischmann (left) and Pons

Science needs active measures to protect it, Goodstein says. He never tells us outright what active measures he has in mind, but from the contents of the rest of the book, I suspect he means things like the course he taught, how science ethics are communicated from professor to student, and the crafting of research misconduct policies like the one he helped to write at Caltech. He provides that policy in an appendix.

Defining research misconduct/fraud itself helps to protect science. Goodstein recounts the tumultuous efforts of the federal government over a period of nearly two decades, starting in the early 1980s, to come up with a working definition that most members of the scientific community could agree on. Briefly, that definition states that misconduct consists of falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism that is a significant departure from accepted practices of the scientific community; is committed intentionally, or knowingly, or with reckless disregard for accepted practices; and is proved by a preponderance of evidence.

Differentiating between mistakes that should be corrected and outright deception can spare many people the acute pain and severe repercussions of a fraud revealed-and that's the value of a good definition for misconduct. Even allegations of fraud can damage the careers of not only the accused but of others associated with the work.

The book discusses the famous cases of virologists Robert Gallo and David Baltimore, who were never accused of any wrongdoing themselves but who were nonetheless cast into years of turmoil because of allegations that surfaced in the late 1980s against people who were working with them. The cases dragged on for years, and fraud or misconduct was never conclusively determined in either one. Still, the controversy cost Baltimore his job as president of Rockefeller University and Gallo, quite possibly, a share in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus.

Whatever measures are in place, protecting science from misconduct or fraud will never be foolproof. As a human endeavor, science will always be subject to human failings and weaknesses. At some point, there's probably no stopping someone who has justified fraud as the path forward in their scientific work and is clever enough to hide it from colleagues, peer reviewers, journal editors, and others, at least for a time.

The book singles out biomedical research as especially vulnerable to cases of fraud in part because most biological experimentation is not exactly reproducible. But Goodstein looks unsparingly at his own discipline, revisiting such painful episodes as the case of Jan Hendrik Schön at the former Bell Labs. Schön apparently faked some or all of the data for a landmark series of papers on organic semiconductors. Once hailed as a brilliant young investigator on the fast track to a Nobel Prize, he was fired and his Ph.D. was revoked in 2004.

Another case was that of Victor Ninov at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He claimed to have created element 118, but no other group could reproduce the work, as is required for the discovery of elements. A 2001 investigation at LBNL revealed that he had fabricated the experimental data entirely, staining the solid reputation of one of the world's great physics laboratories.

There are no cases of fraud in chemistry in the book, but Goodstein does bring up the weird episode of cold fusion as instigated by University of Utah researchers Martin Fleischmann and B. Stanley Pons in 1989. They claimed, at a press conference, to have induced controlled nuclear fusion reactions on a bench in their laboratory. Goodstein writes that there is no evidence that Pons and Fleischmann committed fraud, but other groups could not reproduce their results. A Caltech group of investigators took up the case and their work knocked cold fusion out of the realm of mainstream science altogether. Still, to this day, there are those who believe in the possibility of cold fusion, and they keep the flame burning that it might one day be proved.

Cold fusion is a case of what Irving Langmuir called “pathological science,” Goodstein writes. “In pathological science the person involved always thinks he or she is doing the right thing, but is led into folly by self-delusion. Examples include the celebrated case of N-rays and various other kinds of rays ‘discovered’ in the wake of X-rays, as well as J. B. Rhine’s extrasensory perception, and the many reported cases of flying saucers.”

A love of science and dedication to the rigors and rewards of the scientific method pervade Goodstein's book. He devotes an entire chapter to the 1986 discovery of high-temperature superconductivity, which theoretical work had seemingly ruled out. "It's living proof," Goodstein writes, "that nature likely has endless surprises for us and a cautionary reminder that we shouldn't always pay too much attention to the received wisdom."

The price of keeping such an open mind in science, Goodstein seems to suggest, is that there will always be those who would have us fooled. Knowing how to deal with it, he shows, can limit the damage.


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