Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Scientific misconduct: fraud, plagiarism and all that

A good article on scientific fraud and plagiarism by Charles Gross in The Nation (of all places), focusing on the case of Marc Hauser, but looking at the phenomenon much more widely: Disgrace: On Marc Hauser

"The first formal discussion of scientific misconduct was published in 1830 by Charles Babbage, who held Newton’s chair at Cambridge and made major contributions to astronomy, mathematics and the development of computers. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and on Some of Its Causes, Babbage distinguished “several species of impositions that have been practised in science…hoaxing, forging, trimming, and cooking.” An example of “hoaxing” would be the Piltdown man, discovered in 1911 and discredited in 1953; parts of an ape and human skull were combined, supposedly to represent a “missing link” in human evolution. Hoaxes are intended to expose naïveté and credulousness and to mock pseudo wisdom. Unlike most hoaxes, Babbage’s other “impositions” are carried out to advance the perpetrator’s scientific career. “Forging,” which he thought rare, is the counterfeiting of results, today called fabrication. “Trimming” consists of eliminating outliers to make results look more accurate, while keeping the average the same. “Cooking” is the selection of data. Trimming and cooking fall under the modern rubric of “falsification.” Scholarly conventions and standards of scientific probity were probably different in the distant past, yet the feuds, priority disputes and porous notions of scientific truthfulness from previous centuries seem contemporary.
"Scientists guilty of misconduct are found in every field, at every kind of research institution and with a variety of social and educational backgrounds. Yet a survey of the excellent coverage of fraud in Science and recent books on the subject—ranging from Horace Freeland Judson’s The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science (2004) to David Goodstein’s On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales From the Front Lines of Science (2010)—reveals a pattern of the most common, or modal, scientific miscreant. He is a bright and ambitious young man working in an elite institution in a rapidly moving and highly competitive branch of modern biology or medicine, where results have important theoretical, clinical or financial implications. He has been mentored and supported by a senior and respected establishment figure who is often the co-author of many of his papers but may have not been closely involved in the research.
"The serious involvement of the government in policing scientific misconduct began only in 1981, when hearings were convened by Al Gore, then a Congressman and chair of the investigations and oversight subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee, after an outbreak of egregious scandals. One was the case of John Long, a promising associate professor at Massachusetts General Hospital who was found to have faked cell lines in his research on Hodgkin’s disease. Another case involved Vijay Soman, an assistant professor at Yale Medical School. Soman plagiarized the research findings of Helena Wachslicht-Rodbard, who worked at the NIH. A paper Wachslicht-Rodbard had written about anorexia nervosa and insulin receptors had been sent for publication review to Soman’s mentor, Philip Felig, the vice chair of medicine at Yale. Felig gave it to Soman, who ghostwrote a rejection for Felig. Soman then stole the idea of Wachslicht-Rodbard’s paper and some of its words, fabricated his own supporting “data” and published his results with Felig as co-author.
"the section on Plagiarism in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says, ‘The key element of this principle is that an author does not present the work of another author as if it were his own. This can extend to ideas as well as written words.

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