Reading Journal Entry: The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science by Horace Freeland Judson

Who was it who recommended I read this book? Step forward! Someone out there recommended I read this recently, I know.

Horace Freeland Judson is a science journalist who tackles the issues of scientific fraud. The content was interesting, especially in context of in light of the recent stem cell research scandal, but I felt the treatment was scattered and lacked focus.

Judson describes instances of fraud by some of the major scientists of the last two hundred years - Darwin, Pasteur, Haeckel, etc., and then jumps to a description of several high profile modern scientific frauds. How were they perpetrated? How were they discovered? What was the institutional reaction to discovery?

Those institutions and scientists who react swiftly and openly come out looking best. But even some quite prominent and respected figures have been shown to be involved in 'scientific misconduct', which spawns the gamut from tweaking results, to putting one's name on a paper that one has not authored, to outright fabrication and plagiarism.

Judson begins to lose his focus when he goes beyond specific instances of fraud into the wider implications. Clearly he is right when he concludes that fraud in science is not self-correcting; many egregious examples of fraud were discovered only by happenstance. Where he is on less solid ground is concluding that undiscovered fraud is widespread. How many things don't we know about? Hmmmm.

Judson also argues that peer-review of grant requests and refereeing of papers are two institutions greatly in need of reform, leading to greater opportunities to commit fraud and 'misconduct'. Grant requests are so competitive that review boards end up choosing between grants of 'equal scientific value' - demoralizing and an invitation to cronyism. Peer review of papers almost always fails to detect fraud, and is an invitation to plagiarism.

Judson's claim is that within the next ten years both institutions will be clearly different and better. But it's hard to imagine how this will happen without in the first case, grant review, without a huge influx of money from the government or a significant reduction in the number of working scientists. Refereeing of papers, on the other hand, which is currently anonymous, may well become an open process.

Not much of the theorizing was new to me, as I have a lot of academics in my family. Scientists are not all pure-hearted idealists, they are not more or less likely to misbehave than ordinary mortals. The only difference is that in science as contrasted to the rest of academia and the rest of the world, you are dealing with experiments and data.

The book's greatest weakness is that misconduct, bullying, plagiarism, appropriation are endemic in all of academia, and in the business world as well. Judson even throws in brief summaries of the big accounting and journalistic scandals that have happened over the past five to ten years in an introduction, for good measure.

Yes, scientists are people, and more people are cheating, and that means more scientists are cheating, and that is bad! But it doesn't really seem to be about science.

The material would have benefited from a narrower lens and a greater focus on historical cases. Where it succeeds is telling fascinating stories about people who 'done wrong', some of them people we respect. Where it fails is in becoming a generic polemic.


Richard Mason said...

RAND, a quasi-academic institution, puts its publications through peer review, but not anonymous peer review.

I have one paper going through anonymous peer review and one going through non-anonymous peer review right now.

Based on my limited data sample, the comments seem about equally tough/incisive either way. Maybe non-anonymity is better.

Another factor for societal change here is that, now that anyone can make a paper available on the Internet, the power and necessity of traditional journals is considerably diminished.

Maxine said...

This is a great posting on HFJ's book. (Incidentally, have you read his "Eighth day of Creation" about the discovery of the DNA double helix?)

Mainly in response to Richard Mason's points:

Anyone can indeed publish a paper on the internet, but scientists don't publish their papers to communicate new science. (Strange but true). They publish them to get jobs and promotions, and for this they need to be published in a journal with a high Impact Factor. Cue peer-review.

Anonymous vs non-anonymous. Depends a lot on the structure of the journal, are the editors academics or independent? etc. One problem I have found over the years with "open" peer review is that when a first submission is peer-reviewed and the author asked to revise the paper (as she/he invariably is for one of the better journals), the author can often cajole, threaten and otherwise persuade the reviewer to "OK" the ms next time round, even if the reviewer has doubts. This is particularly the case if the reviewer is junior to the author, and for example might one day want a job in that person's lab. If the journal editors are unbiased and knowledgeable, as well as good at making judgements, I think, over the years, that anonymous peer-review is better.

Peer-review is not designed to detect fraud, it is a system designed to operate within an honest system. It "can" detect fraud, but will not necessarily.

all the best

A Palazzo said...

Interesting that Judson came out with a new book on peer-review.

Yes there are many problems with the peer-review process, but just like the famous quote on democracy, nobody has come up with anything better.

In the end it's repeatability that dictates whether any published data becomes accepted.

mapletree7 said...

I didn't realise I had so many active academics reading, thank you!

And Palazzo, strangely, I was speaking to an economist about peer review and he mentioned the exact same Churchill quotation about democracy. About 3 minutes before you posted your comment.

Solomon Rivlin said...

I am an active scientist and a whistleblower. Most laymen are unaware of the prevalence of scientific misconduct in science and medicine and many scientists prefer to burry their heads in the sand. I have described my experience as a whistleblower in a book entitled "Scientific misconduct and its cover-up: Diary of a whistleblower" (
I cannot promise it to be a good a read as Judson's. However, it could be even more revealing.

Ehud Blade said...

Of the two main partition errors that scientists are trained to find – inaccuracy and imprecision – fraud isn't one. Common sensically, maybe. But, to the extent that scientific fraud becomes a legal category, forget it.

Solomon Rivlin said...

Can we trust the scientific work of an exposed fraudster? Can we be sure that his/her body of work prior to his/her stumble is all up-and-up? And if this scientist is allowed to pursue his/her scientific endeavor, can we trust his/her future science? Why should we believe that an unethical scientist can be rehabilitated?

Ehud Blade said...

Jonathan asked:

"Can we trust the scientific work of an exposed fraudster?"


I can't speak for "we." Only me.

I'd say that you need to take responsibility in your scientific sub-community to establish and publish criteria for rehabilitation. Unless you want an absolute rule forever barring proven frauds from practicing science.

If a candidate for rehabilitation passes your criteria, then peer review should do its normal work thereafter, with the likely knowledge that peer review would de facto be more parsimonious.

To the question: "Why should we believe that an unethical scientist can be rehabilitated?"

Why shouldn't you?

Why not start will a null hypothesis, and say, "I don't know whether an unethical scientist can be rehabilitated." – and then establish criteria for rehabilitation? – can anyone really answer the question whether an unethical scientist can be rehabilitated if you can't establish criteria for rehabilitation, in theory?

Again, the distinction between unethical science and legal categories of "fraud" is a hoary one. Even in cases where a legal conviction for fraud is obtained, the subsequent value of work or testimony by the convicted fraudster is still potentially relevant, but the credibility of a convicted fraudster is subjected to more rigorous testing. There's no absolute bar. There's no bar a priori.

A convicted crook or a known scoundrel can still tell the truth in specific cases – like saying that the traffic light was green when the car went through the intersection. One most famous case of rehabilitation is in the case of the man who was the subject of the movie, "Catch Me if You Can," who later went to work as an expert investigator of fraud across several disciplines, most notably insurance fraud. The question of rehabilitation depends on the heart of the agent. And motives are agile objects. But, it can be done.

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