Monday, July 25, 2011

July is science scandal month

This month, the C&E News obtained detailed reports (summary here) on the Sezen/Sames data fabrication scandal. For those not following the details, Bengu Sezen (PhD awarded in 2005) was found guilty of 21 counts of research misconduct after it turns out that most of her results were fabricated. Her advisor, Dalibor Sames, ended up retracting 6 publications after the allegations came out and were proven true and spent lots of time and money on fake research. The details are really quite astonishing:

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

Now at first, this seems like one of my worst nightmares--a very clever PhD student spends lots of time falsifying data leading to withdrawn papers, ruined research, and a damaged reputation. But the reports paint an even more troubling picture, with Sames ignoring warning signs as early as 2002 that something was wrong with the data. As irritating as it is that people wasted time trying to replicate false results, this is how science works, and is what lead to the discovery of the fraud.

What I find truly disturbing is that at least three students left the Sames group after being unable to replicate the results. Three students! Even if Sezen was the reincarnation of Marie Curie, shouldn't Sames have been worried that not one, not two, but three people IN HIS OWN LAB could not reproduce Sezen's work? This is on top of outside groups having problems. I have been guilty myself of falling in love with my own data, but surely doubts would creep in after the second failure--I could understand thinking that maybe one person was just not cut out for the work, but three?!? Also, did no one else in the department wonder that attrition was so high in the Sames group (although maybe that is not so unusual for the Columbia Chemistry department, which is in some ways even more upsetting)? In this particular scandal no one comes off particularly well, except for the unnamed members of the Sames group caught in the crossfire of this incident.

The other major science scandal news this month is that Marc Hauser (of the faked monkey research) has resigned his position at Harvard. I also find this situation troubling, since Hauser is apparently abandoning his group now that his research has been discredited and moving on to bigger and better things (for him, at least). Like the Elizabeth Goodwin case, this is yet another example of how fraud can pay for dishonest academics: boost your career with goosed results, then move on to something else (lucrative) when caught, leaving your trainees behind to pay the price. Surely research fraud should have a stronger penalty than leaving academia for industry? And again I ask what will happen to Hauser's students?


Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting scooped

Well, it happened (sort of). Another group recently published the results of an experiment we are trying to do in a prominent journal for our field. Now at first, I was upset about it, given that this experiment is the core of one of my student's PhDs. It is really easy to see this work in print, and get all freaked out.

Taking a second look, I found that Namnezia is totally right about scientific scooping (in my decidedly not crystallography/single answer field). Our experiment is similar in broad outline to what has been published, but the details vary in some very significant ways. Yes, we may be second, but at least we have had our thinking validated! First of all, this is an interesting scientific problem--at least one other good group is working on solving it. Second, our original intuition has been confirmed, demonstrating that our GENERAL approach will definitely work (which wasn't at all guaranteed). I am also hoping that a little competition will be motivating, but on that one, you never know.

Now, I would certainly have been happier to be the first to demonstrate this concept, but the sky isn't falling, this didn't wreck my tenure chances, my student will still get nice publications, and all our hard work to date isn't wasted. In some ways this is new to me (much of my prior work was on REALLY niche systems or in systems with a relatively high barrier to entry). I am actually pretty happy to have more scientific playmates now, so to speak. But everything is a mixed blessing, so working in a more populated area of science means things like this are going to happen.

Our approach has a different set of advantages and disadvantages than the one already published, so I still think our project will produce some interesting new science. Fortunately, being first doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Women in Science (Now with fewer babies!)

GMP's post today reminded me that I should send you off to Hermitage's blog, where she is organizing an even bigger and better panel of female scientists to answer your questions about anything EXCEPT for babies. Go ahead and post your questions. She will pick 4 questions to be distributed to the panelists, who will answer them 4 weeks later.

Last year's questions were an interesting mix. My answers are here. This year's panel is larger, and covers a wider range of experiences from postdoc to senior scientist. Here's your chance to find out anything you want to know about women in science but were afraid to ask in real life.