Sunday, October 30, 2005

Integrity in Science - backwards progress

Maybe it's just my limited perception, but it seems like there have been a lot of allegations of falsified data lately.

Here's just a shallow sampling:


MIT professor fired last week over fake data.

A couple of years ago, a Bell Labs professor was fired over fake data. The number of papers in question: more than a dozen.

A year before that, a fake claim to a new element of the periodic table .


National Library of Medicine has a list of four Medline retractions so far in 2005.

A Nature paper retracted recently .

Article on several papers shown to be based on fake data .

Human <--> Nature <--> Science <--> ?

I've been aware of this kind of thing going on more or less since grad school, when I read some of The Baltimore Case . I actually couldn't bring myself to read the whole thing since it was so upsetting to me.

I think the reason I find this whole topic upsetting is that I have seen serious accusations only from a distance. And in many cases, as in the Baltimore Case, the accuser really does think they are serving the progress of science by making the accusation. And it always ruins the career of the accused person, no matter what the outcome.

But in the cases I've seen from closer up, the accused person always insists the accusations were false. In the cases I know about, the retractions and/or firings were always triggered by a personal dispute with the accuser. And we may never know if the paper should have been retracted at all, or if politics just trumped progress.

One of the things I've always found most encouraging about science is that, on some level, it doesn't matter who you are: it only matters what the data say. The data can stand alone. Except, of course, when the accuser has more political power than the author.

The Search for Truth

But more than anything, it's the cases where the accused person actually admits to having concocted imaginary data that really blow my mind.

It's interesting because it almost makes a case for giving no rewards for success.

I think success is the biggest pressure on scientists: ego, acclaim, and perhaps a little more job security. But maybe if those rewards weren't there, we'd be 'humble servants', or whatever: we'd just do it because we want to know the answer, we want to cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes. We want to save the endangered birds.

In short, we'd do the job because we understand that science is meaningless if it's based on anything fake, and the process of learning something new should be reward enough.

Shouldn't it?

Lord knows I've argued for fair salaries and more appreciation for science as a whole. I've even thought that having more tv shows or movies glorifying scientists might work in our favor. But the real fact is, I hate the stratification of American, the celebrity-worship. I hate what it has already done to science, and I hate to think where it's going when the Famous People in science have all the power. So I don't always think that capitalism is the best model.

The Rats That Race

I think the problem is that kids feel so much pressure to get straight A's in school that they cheat (see for example this article ). And the mentality of getting away with it just carries on until they get caught. My hypothesis is that these people are drawn to cheating, that they have probably been cheating for years before they admit to anything, not that these are isolated cases. But I could be wrong. Maybe one day something just snaps and they decide to go for it, like robbing a bank at gunpoint. Maybe they think it's worth the risk, because they're only thinking about themselves, and not about the scientific community as a whole. They're worried they won't be in the scientific community anymore if they don't continue to perform at a certain level.

I'm sure there are social psychologists out there who have studied this in great depth... I'd love to hear what the percentages are for people's motivations and the length of time the average cheater got away with it before it backfired on them.

I'm becoming more passionate about ethics as I get older, and not just because of these people who claim there's no evidence for evolution, or the lack of fetal consciousness, or the dangers of global pollution. If we're not unassailable, these lunatics are going to destroy whatever progress we make.

I'm also concerned about ethics because I have heard way too many stories of people unable to reproduce published results, and wasting huge amounts of time blaming themselves. And I've been in the situation lately that my results contradict those that were published by others previously, and the default conclusion seems to be that I must have done something wrong, not that I have uncovered something new. Now I have twice the work cut out for me: I not only have to prove that I'm right, but I have to take the precarious political step of proving that what others have shown is actually false, or perhaps only a small part of a much more complicated story.

Publishing incorrect data hurts everybody, and has such extreme and long-ranging repercussions that it hurts my head to think about all the work that would be required to correct all of it. I would be interested to see a mathematical projection of how much damage is done, for every one paper that turns out to be fake, how much it slows the production of papers that can be considered progress.

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At 12:40 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

I think the fudging of data is far more endemic than most people realise. In fact, I think most wouldn´t accept their own tweaking of results as faking it.
How many scientists play with contrast on gel pictures to remove those annoying little bands you "just know" shouldn´t be there? How many ignore a small shoulder to a protein purification peak? Ignore the "odd" result which doesn´t fit their theory? Repeat an experiment again and again and again, playing with small factors to get the result that they ultimately want?

The data should stand for itself. But two different scientists with two different theories can look at the same data and come up with two different interpretations. Their own theory is their grail and they will not see anything which contradicts it.

Scientists are human after all, and it is we that perform the experiments and interpret the data. With our pride, greed, lust, envy and wrath.

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous DrSilas said...

I disagree somewhat with Dr. J's interpretation of the "fudging endemic". People have to remember that science is carried out under (hopefully) well-trained, watchful eyes. It is up to the scientist to observe and decide which part of the experiments deserve attention and which don't. I'm sure there are a myriad of very potent drugs waiting to be discovered in my chemical waste drum, but I'm not going to start isolating compounds from the waste. You have to choose your battles, and sometimes chasing after a stray data point is an excersize in futility. The difference between a good scientist and a great scientist is knowing when to give chase and when to let go.

This is very different than the falsification of data - which under no circumstances should be tolerated!

At 12:15 PM, Blogger alamode said...

"And it always ruins the career of the accused person, no matter what the outcome."

Not so fast

Id like to have my career ruined like that too.

At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Zuska said...

I think the person whose career it generally ruins is that of the whistle-blower. Which is what happened in the Baltimore case if I remember correctly, no?

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Zuska, I think you're right. The Baltimore Case was an interesting example because the whistle-blower was so insistent, and she was the subordinate of the person she was accusing. The examples I'm noticing lately mostly concern superiors accusing subordinates, or 'peers' from outside institutions (see the recent plant fuss in Cell).

At 5:40 PM, Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Nature reported a really interesting study on the pervasiveness of ethics violations in science. I summarized it on my blog back in June.

At 12:02 PM, Anonymous MsNaive said...

I am currently going through some kind of ethics ordeal with my boss and his "blue eyed" post doc. It looks like the one who'scareer will be ruined is mine "the whistle blower".


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