Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Fraud in the Literature, Blogs and Witchhunts

These are heady times for many bloggers in the chemisphere. No longer content to just comment about what is occurring in their own labs, many bloggers are starting to become activists that are confronting examples of fraud, plagarism and other publishing infractions in the technical literature. And their posts exposing such matters are getting a lot of attention not just from other bloggers, but from chemistry trade publications and even the mainstream media.

I would advise caution as things proceed. With all this attention, there is a great desire in others to jump on the bandwagon and "out" dubious research and researchers. Some have called this a witchhunt, a term which may or may not have merit. I won't discuss that issue today. Instead, I (and my grey hairs and old eyes which have seen enough of the same mistakes over and over) have other advice to offer.

What goes around, comes around. Many are pleased to bring the axe down hard on someone's head, and hold as many people responsible as possible (from ALL the authors to the principal investigator and maybe even beyond that), but we need to keep in mind that publishing scientific research is a human effort and as such, will be imperfect at times even when no harm, deceit or other nefarious activity is intended. Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future. Of course that won't happen. You will have failings and shortcomings and things will go wrong despite your most fervent intent to prevent it. Most people do not have a problem with that.

Most people. But there will be plenty of others wanting your head on the same chopping block and with an added level of glee since you were responsible for bringing so many down yourself. It's human nature. We can't change it, this perverse desire to bring down the people bringing down others. Worse yet, these efforts to trap you may be entirely without merit. That won't matter. "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes" (Mark Twain). Your name and reputation can be placed in the same trash heap as those truly deserving it far more easily than you can ever imagine. Despite your noble intents and purity of heart.

I strongly support efforts to ensure that the scientific literature is as correct as possible. With the internet it is easier than ever to find evidence of plagiarism. With software it is easier than ever to find evidence of image manipulation. With computers it is easier than ever to find evidence of falsified data. But once we have such evidence, we need to proceed with something less than a mob mentality. Unfortunately, that too, is human nature and not something that we can wish away. We need to constantly remind ourselves of it and be vigilant against letting it show its ugliness.


Karl D Collins said...

Wise words, kindly expressed.

Anonymous said...

Bullshit. If there is clear evidence of image manipulation / data falsification there is no excuse for that, let them all hang.

Anonymous said...

Reblogged from r/chemistry:

Yeah, when we see something not blatantly wrong criticized in the chemoblogosphere, maybe I'll get concerned. For now, I've seen nothing but blogs doing the job that editors and peer review have been failing at.

Anonymous said...

"...let them all hang"

Way to make the blogger's point re: anonymous comments. Bravo for the unintended irony!

Alan R Price said...

Well said. "Trial by Internet" can be unfair and harmful to parties, including senior authors, who made honest mistakes or else were innocent victims of research misconduct by their staff or coauthors. I have seen too many such cases in recent years in my misconduct consulting work. Allegations of "fraud" against an author, without knowledge of the facts, can be unfairly damaging. The federal or institutional investigation processes, which proceed under confidentiality mandates, should be allowed time to make such determinations.