Professor W. F. v. Gunsteren has written a very interesting essay for Angewandte entitled “The Seven Sins in Academic Behaviour in the Natural Sciences”. In this piece he defines the seven sins as follows (taken from the essay)
- A poor or incomplete description of the work, for example, publishing pretty pictures instead of evidence of causality.
- Failure to perform obvious, cheap tests that could confirm or repudiate a model, theory, or measurement, for example, to detect additional variables or to show under which conditions a model or theory breaks down.
- Insufficient connection between data and hypothesis or message, leading to lack of support for the message or over-interpretation of data, for example, rendering the story more sensational or attractive.
- The reporting of only favorable results, for example, reporting positive or desired (hoped for) results while omitting those that are negative.
- Neglect of errors found after publication.
- The direct fabrication or falsification of data.
Take the incomplete description of the work. Here the scientific journal(s) come in for some criticism; mainly for the restriction of journal space this in turn leading to more date being squeezed into the supplementary material. Interestingly this material is usually freely available while the actual article it corresponds to sits behind a paywall. So in my humble opinion this is a complete waste of time. Either one or the other but not both. The pressure on journal space makes the paper difficult to understand, says Gunsteren. Here I can only agree with him. Actually I wonder just how many referees read the supplementary material. Now you may not believe it, but when I was refereeing papers I always read the stuff that the authors deemed not necessary to put in the paper, and often came across some interesting discrepancies buried deep within and in sometimes in conflict with the actual text in the paper.
It has been said, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. This statement is certainly reflected in today’s publications where colourful diagrams and pictures litter the publication. If this actually helps clarity is open to question. Perhaps the pictures and cartoons should be relegated to the supplementary material and the actual data transposed to the main body of the text.
Moving on to sin number 4 “reporting of favourable results”. Well we all like to have our theories correspond to the observations, placing data in the paper supporting the hypothesis is very helpful in this regard. However, the tendency to omit negative results does not help the cause of science in moving forward. A negative result is also a result, and it’s reporting would actually help other to avoid making the same mistakes. No doubt in these days of fierce competiveness for grant money publishing negative results probably does not help you to obtain funding.
The word plagiarism rears it’s ugly head in sin number 6. This, of course, has recently been the cause of some spectacular events. Here one can think of the two eminent politicians who were discovered to have borrowed results and theorems from others without proper referencing. Self-plagiarism is a contradiction in terms says Prof. Gunsteren. Here I agree with him, how can you steal your own work or written word. You can’t. One recent eminent case makes the point 1-3.
Data fabrication or falsification is certainly the worst offence a scientist can commit. It is a cardinal sin that often ends in tragedy. One just has to be a reader of the Blog Retraction Watch to see just how often this occurs. One notable event in the world of organic chemistry, published in the pages of Angewandte in 2006, was recently retracted by the author of the paper in agreement with the journal editor. You can read all about it here. Over the years there had been several critical remarks about this paper and I’m sure everyone is conversant with the story and I will not go into detail again. But the question(s) remains: Why did it take so long? Why was it only recently initiated? I guess we will never find out, but retracted it was.
Not many members of the lay community are aware of the amount of fabrication that appears to be going on. Research is usually funded from the public domain and it is scandalous to think that this money is being wasted when fabricated data is published. I’m not sure how this can be avoided, as such data can be very difficult to detect. So it is really up to the scientific community working with the journal editors to try and root this out. Not an enviable task. Perhaps a reproduction of these “Seven Sins” on the header page of every journal might jog the memories of the authors. It will be interesting to see if this post receives any useful comments.
- R. Breslow, Tetrahedron Lett. 2011, 52, 4228 – 4232.
- R. Breslow, Isr. J. Chem. 2011, 51, 990 – 996.
- R. Breslow, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134, 6887 – 6892.