Saturday, May 09, 2009

Not so fantastic

I have reviewed Eugenie Samuel Reich’s new book Plastic Fantastic in the Sunday Times (here). The book tells the story of the fraud perpetrated by physicist Jan Hendrik Schön between around 1997 and 2002, during which time he fabricated data in a string of papers about organic microelectronics and nanoelectronics. It was something of an eye-opener to discover the details behind the affair, even though I thought I was fairly well aware of the basic facts. I missed, by the skin of my teeth, being implicated in the matter as a Nature editor, since I quit that job shortly around the time that Schön’s papers started to roll in.

For understandable reasons of space, the Sunday Times lopped off the final sentence in my review, which cited a quote from Cambridge physicist Peter Littlewood that, to my mind, captures the essence of what went on, as Reich makes clear: ‘For a long time I didn’t believe it could have been fraud, because I didn’t believe one person could make all that up. Then I realized, we all made it up.’

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

I don't think that 'tampering' the data is the typical kind of fraud.

Most research groups know their subject well enough, to the point that they know how useless their work can sometimes be. What I witnessed was the willingness to drop inconvenient data and detail, which would otherwise spoil the sales pitch. This isn't the same as changing or manicuring the data, as that would risk the calamity of being caught.

I would call this type of fraud 'extrapolating the rainbow', for next seasons pot of research gold. And it is no surprise to me that fraud goes undetected, as who has the time or money to check other peoples work, when they can hardly afford their own.

A real example: A liquid crystal was hastily measured for its temperature range of phases; the results are true enough within that regime, and show spectacular qualities. But the researchers know that if the same experiment is done over a longer time, the said qualities are no longer present. Result, the first data run is published and lauded as 'potentially' the next best thing since sliced white bread; PhDs awarded to another brace of parvenues; funds guaranteed for next seasons conference beanos; and irksome whistle-blower duly sacked.