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this seems like one of my worst nightmares--a very clever PhD student spends lots of time falsifying data leading to withdrawn papers, ruined research, and a damaged reputation.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?



Anonymous said...

I’m with you – what happens to the students, in all cases, is appalling!

Wrt Sames’ group, however, was he the one who asked the 2 grad students to leave because they could not duplicate Sezen’s results? Could he not have taken the time to try to verify the results himself before taking such a drastic measure?! There is no way that one can excuse conduct like this, and I hope he will have to answer for his negligence.

And yet … in the end he will probably emerge relatively unscathed, just like Hauser and Goodwin. I think it’s times like these that really make it clear just how fungible grad students are in Academia.

Alexandra (Ola) Jacunski said...

Wow... reading this just took me aback, because Sames taught me Organic Chemistry my sophomore year at Columbia. I really loved him, but that has nothing to do with this scandal...

I have to ask the same question as Anonymous above me - did Sames ask the students to leave, or did they decide to go themselves because they felt they weren't up to the challenge? I can see the latter happening only because I know first-hand just how stressed almost every student at that university is.


BioGirl said...

No matter whether Sames asked the students to leave or not - what a waste of time and energy, and to even think about the stress the students had to be under! I am appalled by the lack of empathy some professors or higher up in the academic chain have towards graduate students.

prodigal academic said...

While I think that only Sames and the students know exactly what happened, on page 18 of the report (fact 151) explicitly states what was quoted in my post, namely that the committee found that someone whose name is redacted asked 2 of the students to leave the group. Logic says that this is Sames, since there really isn't anyone else who could do that without kicking them out of the program entirely.

I have definitely seen the type of "Golden Child" behavior before (though not to such an extreme!), so I can't say I am surprised by it. Just very sad that this sort of thing continues on as business as usual.

anthea said...

Ouch... I hope that those three students who were forced to leave or not by Sames aren't stigmatised. I hope that they were able to go else/get into another programme or something. I really get quite frustrated by the apparant lack of empathy by senior academics to this sort disaster. It seems to me that the students often are the biggest losers in this scandal and others like it.