'On Fact and Fraud'

Cases of alleged scientific misconduct make the news with some frequency, and when they do, they tend to appear rather straightforward: a professor or graduate student stands accused of falsifying data, fabricating images, or blatantly plagiarizing.

March 19, 2010

Cases of alleged scientific misconduct make the news with some frequency, and when they do, they tend to appear rather straightforward: a professor or graduate student stands accused of falsifying data, fabricating images, or blatantly plagiarizing. Much more common, however -- and much less likely to make headlines -- are cases in which the lines are blurry; where it becomes difficult to tell an honest mistake from a deliberate attempt to mislead, an unfortunate oversight from an intentional distortion.

In his new book, On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science (Princeton University Press), David Goodstein explores seven cases of purported scientific misconduct, from Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan's work on electron charge to the still-controversial issue of cold fusion. Goodstein examines the evidence in each case to determine whether or not fraud occurred, and ultimately arrives at his own unambiguous definition of scientific fraud.

Goodstein, who is Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor in the department of physics at the California Institute of Technology, responded via e-mail to questions about his book and related themes.

Q: The book’s preface notes a void that you discovered while co-teaching a class in scientific ethics: that no “suitable textbook” existed for such a course. What are the goals of your book, and to whom do you hope it will prove most useful?

A: The chief goals of my book were to lay out a series of real-life cases, some involving fraud and some not. It should prove useful to anyone interested in science fraud and related issues: students, teachers and anyone else who cares. Actually, it should prove useful to anyone who wants to know how science really works. It turns out that what is and is not fraud is a pretty good window for viewing the entire scientific enterprise. Fraud is very uncommon in science, but on those occasions when someone is accused of fraud, the case for the defense can illuminate how it all works.

Q: You write that one problem with attempting to define “what constitutes scientific misconduct or fraud” is that it’s “all too easy to formulate plausible-sounding ethical principles” that wouldn’t work in practice. Are there key ethical principles for the practice of science that do work in practice?

A: There are three basic principles of scientific misconduct: Thou shalt not commit fabrication (making up results); thou shalt not commit falsification (changing or omitting data or results); and thou shalt not commit plagiarism (appropriation of ideas without giving credit). There are other forms of misconduct in science, but they are much less important than those three. There are problems of the order of authors, questions about repeating works in different journals and so on. But nothing else rises to the level of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (mnemonic ffp; frequent flyer plan for the cognizanti).

Q: Modern science, in your view, is shaped and regulated by a “Reward System” and an “Authority Structure.” These structures help to ensure that scientific research “produce[s] useful results” – but your description of them contains a certain degree of irony. What are some of the important flaws of the current system – and what changes would you like to see?

A: I think the present system (the Reward System and the Authority Structure), which emerged as soon as modern science did, is probably a fact of life that can't really be changed at all. There have been various well-intentioned attempts to substitute something else for the Reward System and the Authority Structure, but none have succeeded. The whole structure seems deeply ingrained in the way science is done.

Q: The book includes, as an appendix, Caltech’s policy on research misconduct, which you were involved in drafting during your time as vice provost there. Does Caltech’s policy differ in any substantial way(s) from the policies of other research universities?

A: I don't know the particulars of many other policies (aside from ones that copied Caltech's). One that caught my attention recently still had the catch-phrase "...other practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted within the scientific community….” which Caltech has never had. During the time when we were supposed to have that phrase in our rules but didn't, two cases came up of junior faculty members who had been accused by referees of committing misconduct. One had put the name of someone who hadn't agreed on a paper as an author, and the other had published a paper in one journal, and then having had a breakthrough, published much the same paper plus his breakthrough in another journal. The committees in both cases came to me for advice, and I was able to say that neither case was misconduct according to the Caltech rules (although they might have been according to the looser federal standard). Both young people were promoted to tenure and today are among our brightest stars.

Q: What should universities do to minimize the likelihood that their graduates will eventually commit research misconduct? What about their professors?

A: To minimize the incidence of scientific misconduct they should teach a course like ours, which outlines what I've said above and deals with real case histories. Well-intentioned people often use made-up cases to try to teach this subject, but the use of real case histories lends an immediacy to the subject that can never be obtained using invented cases.


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