I’ve just been reading an article in Physics World about a high-flying young physicist who deceived the science community for several years (including the editors of ‘Nature’ and ‘Science’), by, putting it bluntly, making up his results. After reading it I have several questions in my head. What makes someone do that? Why did it take so long before anyone noticed? How many other ‘successful’ scientists out there are doing the same?
In this case, (and this is my opinion based solely on the article), the guy involved seemed out to please his bosses. Discovering phenomena in the field of electronics that would prove very useful and profitable. Or at least they would, if they were real. That temptation is a big one. Career progression in science is, I think, too much based on ‘success’, rather than simply doing science well. There are numerous really good scientists out there who will never make an earth-shattering discovery and become as famous as Einstein and Hawking, but they contribute significantly to science nonetheless. Employers of all kinds are naturally likely to smile more kindly towards people who make them money, through inventions, successful products, or lots of research publications in top jounals, and therin lies the temptation to subtly ‘alter’ your results a little bit. (Though in this case it seemed to be downright make them up entirely). Researchers who continuely fail to find that cancer vaccine or fast-switching transistor don’t get looked as favourably on as the one who gets that lucky break.
There is another type of fraud, which is the opposite, and I suspect much more common – instead of making up results you simply fail to report those you get. It’s very tempting to provide evidence in support of your pet theory, but conveniently ‘forget’ the mountain of results that you have accumulated that don’t support it.
Anyway, the article is well worth a read – also the on-line comments are interesting too (well, some of them are.)