A journalistic account of the case of data manipulation by physicist Jan Hendrik Schön is rich in detail but draws the wrong conclusions about the self-correcting processes of science, argues Martin Blume.
Plastic Fantastic: How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific World
- Eugenie Samuel Reich
Jan Hendrik Schön first came to New Jersey's Bell Laboratories from his doctoral work at the University of Konstanz, Germany, as an intern in 1997. A year later he became a postdoc and staff member. Over the next few years he published apparently groundbreaking research in materials science. His results appeared in major research journals, and his co-authors and supervisors included highly respected researchers. Scientists worldwide tried to replicate his findings — but were unable to do so. Mounting complaints about inconsistencies in his work led to allegations of scientific misconduct being made against Schön. He was investigated by the management at Bell Labs, first internally and then by a select external committee in 2002. This committee found compelling evidence of manipulation and misrepresentation of data. Schön was fired from his position and has not worked visibly in research since.
The possibility of scientific misconduct cannot be eradicated.
Journalist Eugenie Samuel Reich pursues this affair in depth in Plastic Fantastic. Holder of a bachelor's degree in physics and philosophy from the University of Oxford, UK, Reich is fascinated by scientific conduct. Her investigation is the result of several years of research, during which she interviewed 125 individuals who interacted with Schön, attended meetings and visited the laboratories where attempts were made to replicate his 'discoveries'.
The introduction and first chapter can be understood by any reader. Reich explains the strange title of the book — “plastic fantastic” was a phrase used by the media to describe Schön's claims of finding superconductivity in a plastic material, and it played into her quest to contact him. She discusses how her interest in the story arose from her reading of “the most riveting piece of technical writing I have ever come across” — namely the final investigation report into Schön's conduct by the external committee chaired by Malcolm Beasley, a physics professor at Stanford University in California.
Later chapters of the book place Schön's work in context; basic research at Bell Labs was in decline at that time because of restructuring, and its researchers were under pressure. Reich also focuses on the peer-review process at the journals Science and Nature, in which Schön published many prominent articles. She describes the science behind the recondite fields in which Schön worked, including 'MOSFET' electronic chips and superconductivity in plastics. Here the writing becomes too technical and the book's layout, with some 200 footnotes, distracting. Surprisingly there are no acknowledgements. Although some interviewees are mentioned, we do not learn which experts' views contributed the most. Nevertheless, the book will interest physicists and materials scientists working in related fields, and those who strive to prevent scientific misconduct.
Reich does an excellent job of dealing with the facts of the Schön case, but less well with their interpretation. She tends to describe issues in black-and-white terms and uses strident language unnecessarily. An acerbic tone creeps into judgements of the individuals involved, such as one editor being “opinionated”, and this distracts from her central points.
More important is Reich's conclusion that the self-correction process of science failed in this case and should not be trusted: “It seems like little more than blind faith to insist that all activity carried out in the name of science will always be self-correcting.” Yet Reich doesn't say where this assumption comes from. No scientist who has thought about how science works would “insist” on this; nor can it “always” be true. It is likely that fabrication of data in a significant discovery will be uncovered because close attention will be paid to it. But fabricated data in a more obscure article may not be corrected.
Reich understands how data fabrication may arise. She admits that she made up experimental data while a student working as a research assistant. Seeing a pattern emerging in her measurements, she entered values that fitted a trend rather than recording objectively what she saw. Her supervisor did not notice. Reich remarks that she had not been educated on the sanctity of data beforehand, only realizing its importance after recalling the incident when writing this book. Harm might have been done if she had missed a change in the pattern that signalled a new discovery. This example of a student seeking the expected answer rather than new clues shows how important it is to educate researchers. Reich's late recognition of this issue should also have made her pause before drawing strong conclusions on the processes of science.
Although the detection of data fabrication is not inevitable, we can increase the probability of detection by remaining vigilant at each stage in the scientific process. Steps include attempting to replicate important results and encouraging the alertness of managers, journal editors and referees, and of knowledgeable scientists who read and evaluate publications. In the Schön case, two scientists in particular played a key part — Paul McEuen of Cornell University, New York, and Lydia Sohn, then of Princeton University, New Jersey. Combing through Schön's papers, they found inconsistent and repeated figures that pointed to serious problems, which were brought to the attention of Bell management. Reich sees the need of individuals to intervene as illustrating science's failure to cope with misconduct; but their vigilance is part of the correction process, which culminated in the Beasley report that Reich so admires.
The problems with Schon's work should have been detected earlier. Although his co-authors and supervisors were all cleared of misconduct in the final report, they could have been more curious about his results. Similarly, when Schön applied for patents, he was not required to show or have others sign his laboratory notebook — his use of which is questionable.
It must also be noted that an accusation of misconduct is not a finding. And an incorrect or false accusation can ruin reputations or destroy careers, even if the accusation is later recognized as wrong. This puts a burden on institutions that requires thought and investigation before public disclosure, which slows the process.
Reich opines that the memory of this particular affair will fade. But the possibility of scientific misconduct cannot be eradicated. Many people are involved in educating scientists at all stages of their careers to keep the possibility of scientific fraud, plagiarism, conflict of interest and other unethical behaviour before them. For example, at a 2003 workshop that I convened in London, more than 70 international participants, including publishers, editors and working scientists, discussed aspects of unethical behaviour, as well as the Schön affair. The result was a set of guidelines that was adopted, after minor modification, by the council of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (see http://tinyurl.com/iupap-ethics).
Scientific associations, such as the American Physical Society (APS) and the Council of Science Editors, have developed and updated codes of behaviour and educational programmes before and since this landmark case. The APS policy (http://tinyurl.com/aps-policy) includes a report on ethics education, which is vital to define and promote ethical behaviour by all scientists. Reich herself references the Beasley report using a link on the website of the APS. I was responsible for posting it there, with permission from Bell Labs' owners Lucent Technologies, following the retraction of six articles co-authored by Schön in the APS journals for which I was then editor-in-chief. It is fortunate that this stable link keeps the report accessible years later (see http://publish.aps.org/reports).
The prevention and uncovering of scientific misconduct requires vigilance, education and humility on the part of scientists, managers, editors, journals and journalists to maximize the probability of correction. In the Schön affair, several of these elements combined to raise that probability enough so that correction occurred. It is unfortunate that Reich did not draw fairer conclusions, despite her hard work in reporting the facts.
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Blume, M. Keeping up scientific standards. Nature 459, 645–646 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/459645a
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