Sunday, October 18, 2009

the great bluff

From 1998 to 2002, an innocent-looking post-doc from Germany committed what probably amounts to the biggest fraud in physics in recent decades, publishing over 30 forged papers in high profile journals including Nature and Science. In her book "Plastic Fantastic", Eugenie Samuel Reich unravels the reasons why this could happen. I reviewed the book for C&I, using my 1200 words length limit to the last, as I believe that this is in fact a very important question, and the answers I have seen before reading this book haven't really been satisfactory.

The most worrying aspect of the story is that he could have gotten away with it, as I have explained in this snippet:

Had he acted in cold blood and considered his best path towards the Max-Planck directorship that he narrowly missed, he would have slowed down after six or seven papers in Nature and Science. He would have revolutionised fewer areas and backed up his first breakthroughs with some real research or at least with some more real-looking data. This way he would have committed fewer errors, his string of breakthroughs would have appeared less implausible and raised less suspicion. Critics would have taken a lot longer to figure out that there was something wrong with his work. And in that extra time, some of the breakthroughs that he anticipated might actually have happened, so he would have been vindicated by other researchers.

One aspect that in my opinion has been underappreciated is that the huge rewards on offer for publishing certain kinds of results in certain journals (namely Nature and Science) put a massive amount of pressure on people working in labs with this kind of ambition (as I know from experience). Much as societies with steep social inequality breed crime, this situation will always tempt some people to forge these results if they can't get them the regular way. After writing my review of the book, I checked the reviews published in both journals, and found that this issue was neatly swept under the rug in both of them. What a coincidence.

My review is in Chemistry & Industry No. 19, p 26 (restricted access).

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