Scientific Fraud-Lessons Learned
By W. F. Brinkman, APS President
W. F. Brinkman
Editor's note: In late September, the committee headed by Malcolm Beasley of Stanford, charged with investigating allegations of research misconduct at Bell Labs, issued its report. They found clear evidence of fraud by Jan Hendrik Schvn, but no evidence of fraud by any of his collaborators. They left open the question of whether some of the co-authors had acted in accordance with their professional responsibility.
Now that the Beasley committee has issued its report, it is time to consider what we have learned from the experience. I believe that there are three issues that the physics community must examine.
First, since Schvn published his research in collaboration with several co-authors, we must carefully consider the responsibility co-authors have to the total content of the paper. This may require formulating new guidelines for our research journals.
Second, we must determine whether the physics community is appropriately alert to the characteristics of research fraud and scientific misconduct in general. This may require an effort on the part of the APS to help educate the community.
Finally, we must determine whether the scientific process worked effectively in revealing the fraud in Schvn's research. It is possible that the fraud was only exposed because of the influence of outside forces.
I'll consider each of these in turn.
In the case of co-authors' responsibility, the Beasley committee said that it could not find clear ethics statements on this issue. They cited a Policy statement by the Deutsche Forschungsgemain- schaft, a quasi- governmental German research agency, that flatly states:
"Authors of scientific publications are always jointly responsible for their content. A so-called 'honorary authorship' is not admissible."
As the Beasley report points out, this is not a workable policy. In most fields of physics, some of the authors contribute specific things - such as crystals of the material of interest - and are therefore not involved in the detailed research. Under these circumstances, a co-author may not be responsible for the full content of the paper. In the ethics statement by the National Academy of Sciences "On being a Scientist" this issue is discussed. It says:
"As with citations, author listings establish responsibility as well as credit. When a paper is shown to contain error, whether caused by mistakes or fraud, authors might wish to disavow responsibility, saying that they were not involved in the part of the paper containing the errors or that they had very little to do with the paper in general. However, an author who is willing to take credit for a paper must also bear responsibility for its contents. Thus, unless responsibility is apportioned explicitly in a footnote or in the body of the paper, the authors whose names appear on a paper must be willing to share responsibility for all of it."
No journal that I know of has a policy where responsibility is apportioned. Indeed, I believe that "apportioned responsibility" is not a workable policy. Nevertheless, it is clear that the physics community must develop a guideline that succinctly defines the responsibilities of co-authors. At a minimum, this guideline should state that while, under certain circumstances, there may be co-authors who should not be held responsible, there is always a senior author who must take responsibility.
I should also point out that this current interest in the responsibility of co-authors is not simply a result of the Schvn affair. It was also a very contentious issue in the recent evidence of misconduct in the research that led to the claim of the discovery of element 118. I believe this means that the broad physics community should work together on this issue.
The second issue that these cases of fraud raise is whether the physics community is appropriately alert to the characteristics of research fraud.
The current cases of fraud were clear-cut but there are many more subtle examples that scientists should be aware of. Being sure to give proper credit is one example. The responsibility of reviewers regarding the information they obtain in the review process and the co-authorship discussed above are others. I believe that the APS should encourage physics departments to foster discussion of these issues among their graduate students.
I am reminded of the time R. E. Peierls was asked why he recommended Klaus Fuchs for work at Los Alamos in the Manhattan project. Peierls responded that morals were never discussed in his community of physicists as everyone was assumed to have the same high standards. I believe that we need to do better than that.
The third issue is that some are proclaiming that the scientific process worked. That is, people familiar with the subject matter were extremely suspicious of the published results and did not believe them. It is true that most of the community was wary of the results as they seemed to have either pushed the limits of what is physically possible or had seeming inconsistencies in them. However, until people outside the subject area actually pointed out examples of apparent fraud most practitioners thought the authors might be wrong but did not think in terms of fraud. This rather innocent attitude is another reason that education of the community seems so necessary.
The APS's Panel on Public Affairs Subcommittee on Ethics is currently examining these issues and will put forth new suggestions as to how the Society and its members should address all these issues in the near future. It is clear that we need to develop new policies particularly with respect to the role of co-authors. We will keep the community informed as this process continues.
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Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette