Published online 26 September 2002 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news020923-9


Physicist found guilty of misconduct

Bell Labs dismisses young nanotechnologist for falsifying data.

Jan Hendrik Schön, formerly a rising star in nanotechnologyJan Hendrik Schön, formerly a rising star in nanotechnology© Materials Research Society

An up-and-coming young physicist at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, has been dismissed after being found guilty of 16 counts of scientific misconduct by a review panel charged with investigating his research.

The panel's report, released yesterday, concludes that Jan Hendrik Schön duplicated, falsified and destroyed data. He showed, says the report, "a reckless disregard for the sanctity of data in the value system of science".

Formerly a rising star in the field of nanotechnology, Schön was renowned for creating field-effect transistors, the backbone of modern electronics, out of tiny molecules. His work won him numerous awards from magazines and scientific organizations, and colleagues were beginning to tip him for a Nobel Prize.

But not everything was as it seemed. Many scientists were unable to reproduce Schön's results. In April, a small group of physicists noticed that graphs in three unrelated papers appeared identical down to what should have been random noise. Bell Labs rapidly launched an independent investigation, which soon expanded to include two dozen papers.

What they found, according to Malcolm Beasley, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, who chaired the panel, was that Schön substituted whole figures from other papers, removed data points that disagreed with predictions, and even used mathematical functions in place of real data points.

Schön acknowledges many of these acts in a response at the end of the report. "I have to admit I made various mistakes in my scientific work which I deeply regret," he writes. "However, I would like to state that all the scientific publications that I prepared were based on experimental observations."

According to the report, most of the evidence of those original experiments has vanished. Schön's transistors were all damaged or destroyed during the course of the original experiments, and attempts to replicate them failed. Likewise, Schön had deleted the raw data he had originally gathered in his experiments, because "his computer lacked sufficient memory".

“Hopefully people will learn something and move forward”

Lydia Sohn
Princeton University

Bell Labs acted swiftly on the panel's findings, firing Schön on Tuesday evening. "This deeply saddens us," says Saswato Das, a spokesperson for the lab. "But we are grateful for the committee's hard work."

Scientists in the field are likewise saddened, although unsurprised, by the panel's findings. "I'm sorry that so many people were working on [replicating Schön's results] and couldn't get it to work," says physicist Lydia Sohn of Princeton University, one of the first to notice the duplicate graphs. "But hopefully people will learn something and move forward."

Bell Labs is the research arm of the communications giant Lucent Technology. Its chastening experience has raised questions about peer review, co-author responsibility and career progression in science.

Geoff Brumfiel is Nature 's Washington physical sciences correspondent. See Nature 's news section on 3 October 2002 for further comment and analysis on this issue.  

Princeton University