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Dishonesty in Science


Horace Freeland Judson, a science journalist who had previously written a narrative of the development of molecular biology, has now produced a nuanced and sophisticated yet accessible view of scientific fraud.3 The Great Betrayal is not simply a narrative of scandals, but places various instances of scientific bad behavior in the context of general social pressures and their manifestation in the scientific community. He reminds us that the drive for economic suc-cess, personal power, and the gratification of one’s ego has led over and over to dishonesty, fraud, and wickedness in business, the church, and the state. Why do we think that the devotees of Newton’s laws will be more saintly than those ruled by Cardinal Law?

Judson discusses fraud of three sorts: fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. Fabrication is the creation of claimed observations and facts out of whole cloth. These are just plain lies. Falsification is the trimming and adjustment of the results of genuine experiments so that they come to be in agreement with a desired conclusion. Numbers may be “adjusted”; there may be a conscious dishonesty or, more subtly, observations that are not in sufficient agreement with the theory may be discounted, often on the basis of ad hoc criteria which the investigator comes to believe are perfectly valid after the fact. There are, after all, many experimental observations that are flawed for one reason or another and ought to be discounted. The problem of how to cull observations honestly is a constant preoccupation of statisticians and methodologists. Judson includes in the category of plagiarism not simply the copying of others’ written texts without attribution, but the appropriation of experimental design or data or experimental material or credit for work that belongs to others. An acquaintance of mine once was refused a strain of virus possessed by a prominent investigator, so he cleverly soaked the letter of refusal in an appropriate liquid and recovered enough virus to start his own cultures.

Judson begins his excursion through the history of frauds with those committed by both acknowledged heroes and villains of science: Isaac Newton, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Robert Millikan, Sigmund Freud, and Cyril Burt. Some, like Burt and Freud, simply made up observations out of their heads to justify their theories. Burt’s fabricated results on the heredity of IQ were so transparent (he even invented fictitious collaborators) as to suggest real pathology. Millikan’s measurements of the electrostatic charge on the electron were a classic case of discounting as aberrant the observations that did not fit well with his theory.

Mendel’s is a more interesting case, although we have only speculation about his behavior. His reported numbers of different types of offspring from various experimental crosses were too close to his expected genetic ratios of 3:1 and 1:1 to be the outcome of counting a relatively small number of seeds or plants in a real sample. The toss of a real coin one hundred times is very unlikely to give exactly 50:50, 51:49, or 49:51 heads to tails every time we do it. Mendel was probably not dishonest but an unconscious innocent victim of “optional stopping.” If you are counting objects of different types without a determination to count a total of exactly, say, five hundred, then eventually you get tired of the whole thing and decide that you have done enough. But if you have a prior theory about how the results should look and are keeping a run-ning tally of the counts there is a tendency, which must be consciously resisted, to say “Enough!” when the results look good. That is not fraud, just bad experimental practice, easy enough to fall into at a time when neither statistics nor psychology was well developed.

A large part of The Great Betrayal is taken up with famous modern cases of fraud, among them the so-called “Baltimore Affair.” An assistant professor at MIT, Thereza Imanishi-Kari, was engaged in a collaboration with the laboratory of one of the most prominent scientists of the day, David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner, director of a large research institute, and soon to be president of Rockefeller University. The actual work of the collaboration involved some postdoctoral fellows and research associates and one result was a paper, coauthored by several of these dependent investigators together with Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore, which made an interesting general claim about the nature of immune systems. A postdoctoral fellow in Imanishi-Kari’s laboratory, Margot O’Toole, discovered one day while looking at some notebooks that Imanishi-Kari had made some observations that contradicted the claims of the paper. O’Toole herself had made similar observations but these had been angrily dismissed by Imanishi-Kari.

O’Toole took her findings to authorities at MIT and at Tufts University, where Imanishi-Kari had just been appointed, and this resulted in a meeting with her, Baltimore, Imanishi-Kari, and administrators of the universities. O’Toole’s request that the pub- lished paper be retracted or changed was refused and that seemed the unsatisfactory end of the affair. Then the story reached the public press and the affair escalated with an investigation by NIH committees, a congressional hearing, and more attention in the scientific and popular press. During the investigations and appeals Imanishi-Kari introduced new documentary evidence of research records intended to support her claims. A Secret Service examination, undertaken at the request of a congressional committee, declared these documents to be fraudulent constructions, thus adding the accusation of deliberate fabrication to the original suspicion of data suppression. However, a highly qualified forensic expert engaged by Imanishi-Kari’s attorney examined the documents and concluded that the Secret Service’s analysis was “erroneous” and did not support the accusation of fabrication.

As a consequence of the uproar, O’Toole was not reappointed to her postdoctoral position, Imanishi-Kari was suspended from her job at Tufts, and Baltimore was forced to resign as president of Rockefeller University. Finally, after ten years of dispute, the affair ended with the Solomonic judgment of an NIH appeals committee that the charges against Imanishi-Kari had not been proven “by a preponderance of the evidence.” In the end, O’Toole got a research position at a research institute, Imanishi-Kari was reinstated at Tufts, and David Baltimore was made president of California Institute of Technology.4

The Baltimore Affair and a few others are notorious examples of more numerous cases of scientific dishonesty, most of which do not reach the attention of the public. We do not know how often scientific fraud of various degrees of conscious dishonesty occurs, nor can we ever know. Some scientific work is of sufficient general relevance that false claims will eventually be contradicted by other observations and in the end, after a certain amount of stumbling around, the truth about nature will emerge. Moreover, some falsification is in support of what turn out to be true theories, as in the cases of Pasteur and Millikan.

Most of science, however, is immune to future verification or refutation because the link between the reported findings and other active branches of investigation are too weak to allow for contradiction or because the reported results are in support of an already verified phenomenon, or because the subject is so esoteric and narrow that no one else cares to work on it. Judson gives the data from a few sociological surveys in which respondents were asked if they knew of cases of falsification or fabrication, but the results cannot be used to estimate the frequency of such events among all published scientific reports. The claim by a former editor of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that “we must recognize that 99.9999 percent of reports are accurate and truthful” is either a fabrication or a falsification, depending on whether he invented it on the spur of the moment or was misrepresenting some actual data by throwing in some extra 9’s.5

Despite the sophistication of Judson’s analysis he has missed a pervasive dishonesty in the practice of science that makes a certain level of intellectual corruption characteristic of the institution. The dishonesty consists in the way credit for scientific research is falsely ascribed to some of the authors of jointly signed scientific papers. He brushes by this practice by referring to “gift authorship,” but, far from a willing gift, it is an exaction that the powerful impose on the weak. Science is carried out for the most part in a collection of cottage industries, work groups called “laboratories,” but that is a synecdoche. The group is headed by a senior scientist, sometimes accompanied by a more junior but established colleague, and includes postdoctoral fellows, research associates, graduate students, visiting scientists, and technical assistants all working in offices and laboratory rooms clustered around the laboratory director’s own space.

It is almost always the case that the laboratory director performs no actual experimental work. There is considerable variation from laboratory to laboratory and from project to project within the laboratory in the degree to which the senior scientist participates in the conception, planning, supervision, and eventual writing-up of the work. In many cases the entire project from conception to publication is without any significant input from the director. Much of what is done, however, is supported by funds from various grants and contracts obtained by the director as the euphemistically named “principal investigator.”

Regardless of the actual involvement of the laboratory director in the intellectual and physical work of a research project, he or she has unchallenged intellectual property rights in the project, much as a lord had unchallenged property rights in the product of serfs or peasants occupying dependent lands. The chief product of a laboratory is in the form of published papers and the chief manifestation of the director’s intellectual property rights is that he or she will be coauthor on every publication from the laboratory, sometimes including even general review papers and book chapters written by subordinate group members.

Such property rights explain how, for example, Professor Eugene Braunwald of the Harvard Medical School came to be an author, at the age of fifty, of over six hundred publications.6 Unfortunately for Braunwald, one of his protĂŠgĂŠs and coauthors, John Darsee, turned out to be a detected fabricator. One wonders how many sleepless nights Braunwald spent worrying about those other publications. But if laboratory directors as a matter of course claim authorship of work to which they have made no intellectual contribution or only a trivial one then they are, year in and year out, committing an intellectual fraud from which they reap immense rewards of ego, prestige, income, and social power. Moreover, by an unconscious affirmation on the part of the scientific community as a whole, these rewards grow autocatalytic. Robert Merton, the founder of modern social studies of science, called attention to a phenomenon he named the “Matthew Effect” after Matthew 25:29:

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

Irrespective of the order of authors on a paper, it is referred to informally and sometimes formally by the name of the best-known author. In laboratory libraries papers are filed under the name of the “senior” author and remembered and discussed under his or her name. I was an indignant witness to an extreme case of the Matthew Effect. A graduate student in my laboratory had published a seminal paper, without my name on it, on an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that everyone agrees has revolutionized the experimental study of population genetics. Shortly afterward I gave a lecture on a different subject, at the end of which a colleague came up from the audience and said, “That was very interesting but what I really admire is your paper on alcohol dehydrogenase.” There is some justice in the world, however, and the misappropriation of intellectual property occasionally means that one may try to pass a bad check. The Matthew Effect then does its work. The fraud attributed to Imanishi-Kari becomes known as the “Baltimore Affair.” To them that hath it shall be given.

Scientists in training are conscious of the appropriation of credit for their work by senior scientists and they resent it but feel that they cannot protest. It is not that they place no value on the details of authorship. They will fight bitterly with colleagues of their own rank about who should be first author on jointly authored publications. Yet when they too become seniors they will engage in the same fabrications of intellectual credit. The fabrications and falsifications of scientific results that we condemn as fraud are carried out from the desire for fame, status, and economic reward. But the misappropriation of credit by senior scientists arises from the same motives. How can we expect scientists to hold literal truth about nature as an inviolable standard, when they participate, en masse, in a conscious everyday falsification about the production of that truth? That is an aspect of what Judson calls “the culture of fraud” that is far more relevant to scientific honesty than the behavior of the executives of Enron on whom most scientists claim to look with disdain.

  1. 3

    The book on molecular biology is The Eighth Day of Creation (Simon and Schuster, 1979).

  2. 4

    For a much more detailed history of the case, see David Hull’s essay in The New York Review, December 3, 1998, and the book by Daniel Kevles that he was reviewing, The Baltimore Case (Norton, 1998).

  3. 5

    Daniel E. Koshland Jr., editorial, Science, January 9, 1987.

  4. 6

    See Judson’s account on p. 113.

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