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Fraud As Collective Responsibility

September 12, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 37

Although cases of misconduct are invariably sad news, I did enjoy both Rudy Baum’s editorial and William Schulz’s perspective on the Sezen/Sames case (C&EN, Aug. 8, pages 5 and40).

Their critical analysis once again reveals an overlooked lesson—that frauds are committed by individuals but they actually constitute a chain reaction involving advisers, editors, reviewers, and institutions. In this context, I strongly recommend reading “Plastic Fantastic” (New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) by science historian Eugenie S. Reich. The book deals with a notorious fraud in modern physics. It also identifies a series of common elements present in scientific frauds and dissects the responsibilities of peripheral players.

The intriguing question is how often such cases really occur. Probably more than thought, although most will remain essentially ignored because a significant portion of research appearing in journals and patents is never repeated. Fortunately, one should not expect massive and conscious frauds like this, but rather subtle cases involving the fabrication of improved data or the inflationary trend in yields and stereo­selectivities (C&EN, May 30, page 50).

Such unethical practices usually occur when someone is under pressure to report high-impact results, which are likewise required by high-profile journals. Even worse, more pressure is now placed on Ph.D. students and young researchers in emerging countries as their institutions often require the candidates to publish a given number of papers in leading journals (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/news.2011.437).

Perhaps science devoid of rankings, bibliometric indexes, and author credentials is not possible at present. One realizes that research conducted for the love of chemistry is an old-fashioned and romantic idea. However, our current system might dangerously promote the status of misconduct from occasional episodes to serious headaches within the central science.

By Pedro Cintas
Badajoz, Spain

After reading the article on scientific fraud, I was saddened that such a fraud was carried out at a premier university. I was further saddened as I read how the university more or less refuses to answer questions concerning the misconduct.

How could a principal investigator allow such misconduct to ensue without detecting the fraud, especially after some of the principal investigator’s graduate students were unable to reproduce the research results? Did the craving for promotion and published papers drive the principal investigator to ignore or not investigate the evidence?

The principal investigator should be demoted and placed on probation for at least 10 years, as well as be denied any competitive research grants for a similar period of time. What a sorry state of ethical conduct by the university and investigator. Enough said!

By Henry B. Sinclair
Peoria, Ill.

Although I am impressed to note the outreach to Congress by ACS public policy fellows, I would be more pleased to see more scientists as representatives in Congress. With just one chemist in the House of Representatives and only six other scientists outside of the medical field in that body, I would hope that more emphasis would be placed on the election of scientists to public office. This shortage was noted in a recent article in the science section of the Aug. 9 New York Times (“Groups Call for Scientists To Engage the Body Politic”).

Essentially, scientists would bring logic and analytical skills to Congress and even perhaps more ethical and moral conduct, although this is not a given based on the Sezen/Sames scandal and on my own recent personal experiences with members of our profession.

By Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, Md


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