A Word on Research Misconduct

Dig out your dictionary and look up the word “hyperbole” (I know, it might be a while since you’ve last had English class)—exaggerated statement or claims not intended to be taken seriously.  I tend to hyperbolize a bit when I replay an incident that happened at the bar or in class, which I attribute to the fact that I’m a terrible storyteller.  I think we all do it to a certain extent.  I know I’ve once said something to the effect of, “It was the greatest movie, ever…in the history of humans.”  A hyperbole at its finest.

While most common vernacular is riddled with hyperboles, I’d argue that the majority of intellectual study makes an effort to stay away from gross exaggerations (with history being the exception).  In particular, science is the observation and study of the physical world, and it leaves no room for hyperboles.  Just facts.  For example, if you mix an aqueous solution of silver nitrate with an aqueous solution of sodium chloride it is a fact that a precipitate will form.  There are no equivocations about scientific facts.  Though, science sometimes falls short when making assumptions that connect two or more facts into one coherent theory or proposal.  Still, these assumptions, en route to a new theory, are usually reasonable if not simplistic (i.e. Occam’s razor).

What about bad data?  Of course, there are ways to make our raw data more “natural” without exaggerating.  In the event that we have to plot data points, for example, as scientists we can exclude data that “doesn’t belong.”  We call these anomalies “outliers” and there is statistical rationale as to why a stray might be “bounced” from the data set without any bias to the result.  But even in these cases, the data point is often so far away from the others that including it might be a detriment to a fact about Mother Nature.

What irritates me to no extent is a term I refer to as “hyperbolized research.”  We have all seen these situations before: yields that are bumped a good 5 to 10 to 50%, data that is fit just right, patent procedures that are not reproducible.  Why are these practices tolerated?  Contemporary science is themed “publish or perish,” which essentially means that if you are not producing enough results (nevermind quality) you will soon be unemployed.  I recall hearing stories about early 20th century scientists who studied science without the proverbial gun to their respective heads and still made great findings.  A lot of these experiments were groundbreaking, marvelous and truly beautiful.

It’s no surprise that this issue of “publish or perish” rears its ugly head in science.  Society is incredibly fast-paced, and science is certainly trying to keep up.  But, it’s really hard to do so with a tiny, bankrupt research group (where most if not all members are teaching) versus a behemoth firm with hundreds of years of experience and millions of dollars of materials to use. 

So, what do groups do to keep pace (or at least appease the boss)?  “How did you do with that reaction you couldn’t get to work last week?”  “Um…I got 98% yield with 95% ee.”  “Great, let’s write up a manuscript and submit to JACS.”  I’ve heard stories of “big name” research groups who’s members purposely inflate their yields to keep “the man” happy.  In these cases, researchers keep two sets of lab notebooks: the real one (usually under lock and key with the actual experimental results) and the boss’ one (usually kept in the open, so the boss can see how his researcher got a 90% yield on chemistry that is next to impossible to reproduce).  The bottom line is that papers get published, lectures are given and proposals are funded—criminality is rewarded.  How is this right?  Furthermore, how is it fair to another researcher who needs to repeat the results?

Have we not learned anything from the Bell Lab incident?  For those not familiar, Hendrik Schön was a groundbreaking physicist working for Bell Labs in the late 1990’s.  He was purportedly on par to win a Nobel Prize with his creation of an “organic molecular transistor.”  The papers describing this work were met with criticism in the scientific community and at some point (c. 2001), Bell Labs launched an internal investigatory committee to examine Schön’s work.  Their final report ultimately alleged 24 accounts of misconduct that were essentially fit into three categories: “Substitution of data,” “unrealistic precision of data,” “Results that contradict known physics.”  In the end, he was ultimately stripped of his doctoral degree.  But think about the repercussions of not investigating Schön’s findings.  Had Schön’s work not been policed, potentially millions of dollars would’ve been invested into falsified research.  While I’m aware that Bell Labs was recently closed, without insinuating anything, it makes me wonder if this Schön incident had any weight in the lab’s termination.

Rex Dalton covered the aftermath of this incident along with several other examples of research misconduct (Nature 2002, 420, 728-729).  He ultimately offered up the following observation:

“Science may be self-correcting, but sometimes it is a painfully slow process.”

Perhaps he’s right.  Sure, several papers are going to be questioned in the future.  And of those papers, a few might be blatant lies.  How much time is it going to take to correct these mistakes?  According to Corey: “Occasionally, blatantly wrong science is published, and to the credit of synthetic chemistry, the corrections usually come quickly and cleanly.”  Case in point?  The hexacyclinol incident that was excellently covered by C&EN and by a couple of fellow bloggers: Derek Lowe and Paul Docherty.  In this case, there was a rapid turn around (possibly due to public interest).  However, this case might be the exception.  It could be years before a questionable project is proven incorrect.

I know…you want me to provide a solution.  Maybe there isn’t an immediate, reasonable answer.  But, alas, here’s what I’ve uncovered: there are a few wonderful articles in J. Chem. Ed. about scientific misconduct, which both hover around the LBNL and Bell Lab incidents (see: J. Chem. Ed. 2002, 79, 1391; ibid. 2005, 82, 1521).  The authors’ messages (albeit bluntly or implied) were that ethics and empathy should be at the forefront in the early years of scientific training.  Some people cannot discern between right and wrong and teachers should do their jobs by teaching students about the rights and responsibilities of being a scientist.  While I did not receive formal training on scientific misconduct, I was given a lambasting for bordering on plagiarism my freshman year of college.   I learned my lesson early—you and your lab partner need to keep separate lab notebooks.  Perhaps this experience has formed me into the scientist that I am today (I’m anal-retentive about my lab notebook). 

I guess there is a remaining question still looming.  What sparked this rant about “doing the right thing”?  I’ve been repeating experiments for the past couple of months that were reported to be exceptionally clean (requiring no chromatography) and high yielding.  Most of these reactions have tanked—miserably—even with exceptional preparation and precision.  So, I’m painstakingly re-optimizing experimental procedures so someone else doesn’t have to.  It’s taking a while—much longer than it reasonably should.  But, hey, “sometimes (correcting science) is a painfully slow process.” 

6 Comments

  1. Well, I guess the upside is that you get to write a paper about optimizing the procedure to achieve what it was supposed to in the first place. :-S

  2. Maybe the prep you are copying wasn’t done by someone as precise as you? Perhaps you should be a bit more relaxed with letting oxygen/water into the system or whatever impurities you’re slaving over to keep out.

  3. The previous researcher smokes.. I do not. Perhaps I should step outside for a few puffs then try the chemistry… can you imagine the SOP?

  4. I was at Bell Labs during the Schön incident, and it didn’t really have much to do with Bell being closed down. Our parent company was losing billions as the internet bubble collapsed, and the writing was already on the wall.

    It’s certainly true that — if Schön hadn’t been caught — many millions and many man-years would have been wasted. It was hot research at the time. But, that’s what makes science self-correcting: people *did* start wasting their time following his work,
    and eventually started wondering why they had no success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *