Jul 10, 2008

World - Look out for fraud ( Research)

NEW YORK: In 1996, editors of the journal Oncogene contacted Francis Collins, director of the US Center for National Genome Research, about a seemingly important paper on leukemia that had come out of his lab. A reviewer had noticed something strange in the paper which claimed that acute leukemia was influenced by a defective gene. Collins investigated and soon found out that the irregularity was because Amitov Hajra, a PhD student working in his lab who was a coauthor, had committed fraud. Collins reported the fraud to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), the watchdog for science research funded by the public health service, and retracted five papers immediately. A decade after the Hajra case, ORI undertook a massive study of the incidence of scienti-fic fraud in US biomedical and health sciences. The results, which were published last month, show that scientists in the US are committing fraud more commonly than we suspect. This is troubling because scientists typically enjoy a high level of trust from the public when they make public statements. Although most scientists are honest, the ORI study implies that unquestioning trust of scientists' statements today is a mistake. ORI surveyed 2,012 scientists across 605 institutions and almost 9 per cent said they had witnessed scientific misconduct in the preceding three years. Based on its survey data, ORI estimates that, for every 100 researchers, there are three instances of fraud every year, most of which aren't reported. This shows that scientific fraud is endemic in the institutions surveyed. And it's probably not just limited to the US and to the fields of health and biological science. In fact, there have been a number of high-profile cases of fraud worldwide recently. A notorious example happened in South Korea three years ago when Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have cloned human stem cells and was exposed. Three years before the South Korean scandal, Hendrik Schon, a young German physicist working at Bell Labs, pulled off a massive fraud in physics. Over four years, he systematically faked results in fields ranging from superconductivity to nanotechnology. Fraud in science is not new. Galileo, Newton and Mendel are among those who have been accused of tweaking their results to improve them, which is a strict no-no in science. In the second century BC, the Greek astronomer Hipparchus is supposed to have done something even more flagrant: he copied a Babylonian star catalogue and passed it off as his own. Science today is a salaried profession, with attendant career pressures. There are millions of scientists at work, more than at any point in history. There is tremendous competition for grant money. All this makes it ripe for fraud. I was at Bell Labs when the Schon scandal unfolded. Fraudsters are often young, charismatic schemers. Schon was no exception. When the Schon scandal unfolded, a number of scientists said that the very fact that the fraud was discovered so quickly was proof that the scientific method works. It's true that most major scientific frauds are exposed relatively quickly. Science relies on repeatability and any major experiment will be repeated and tested by other researchers. If the result cannot be reproduced, the claim is suspect. What the ORI study indicates is that this self-correction is obviously not enough, and there is the need for more policing in science. Around the world, science is often funded through public money, and we need to make sure that such money is well spent. ORI recommends zero-tolerance policy, protection of whistleblowers and model ethical behaviour by prominent scientists. The reality is that we will never be completely rid of fraud in science. There will always be a few scientists like Schon and Hajra. We just need to recognise that human shortcomings are very much part of the story of science and put more safeguards in place.

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