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„Plastic Fantastic – How the Biggest Fraud in Physics Shook the Scientific world“
by Eugenie Samuel Reich (Macmillan Publishers 2009, ISBN-10: 0-230-22467-9)
“He looked just like you and me. Just like everybody else. Who would have thought that he’d be capable of such things…?”, was Bob Cava’s first comment when we got to talk to him about Jan Hendrik Schoen, the person whose name stands for one of the biggest and most sensational cases of scientific fraud in the history of science. Prof. Cava was a colleague of Jan Hendrik Schoen at Bell labs before he took on a professorship at Princeton University and saw him coming and going to his lab, working on his computer, having his lunch break.
“Who would have thought that he’d be capable of such things” – this phrase awkwardly sounds familiar, but not from the context of science. Rather it is connected with one’s favourite crime and mystery show or with reading the latest detective story. A normal looking man coming to mess up your world, threatening security and defying rules and laws – this is superb material for the next episode of “Tatort” or “Criminal Minds”.
Indeed, Eugenie Samuel Reichs book about the Schoen scandal reads like a documentary of a scientific crime. Jan Hendrik Schoen, a postdoc from Konstanz, Germany, arrives at the prestigious Bell Laboratory run by AT&T in January 1997 to work on field-effect transistor experiments using organic crystals. Expectations are high, the supervisor, Bertram Batlogg, wants to prove that he can do more than high temperature superconductivity – the topic that he had gained a splendid reputation for. But getting hands on such a new and experimental field is hard and laborious, so Jan Hendrik Schoen commits the worst crime possible in science: He falsifies data.
No ingredient for a good crime story is missing: There is the criminal, Jan Hendrik Schoen. There are his victims: Supervisors, whose names got stained by the fraud, on the one hand, and Ph. D. students, whose careers got ruined because they unsuccessfully tried to replicate his experiments, on the other. And there are detectives, skeptical scientists like nobel prize winner Robert Laughlin, who doubted the credibility of Schoen’s claims and who finally tracked down duplicated data in his publications in 2002.
But Reich is well aware that crimes you observe in reality are far more complex than crimes on TV. Who really is a victim and who is a wrongdoer? Shouldn’t Schoen’s co-authors and supervisors take blame for being starry-eyed and deprived of judgment by the wish of getting a piece of Schoen’s cake?
Reich’s account of the case is therefore connected with a detailed study of the scientific community. Trying to explain how Schoen could falsify data for almost five years without anyone proving him wrong, she does not only consider Schoen’s character and intrinsic motivation. Reading about the competitive environment at Bell Labs, the “Publish or Perish” imperative and how scientists are “slaves to publication”, the difficulty of whistleblowers to allege a fellow scientist guilty of fraud, and the lack of communication among the “detectives”, gives a realistic account of the way science nowadays works.
But the author frames this comprehensive account with the following question: Is the Schoen scandal the story about how science succeeds in self-correcting? Or is it a story about how it fails?
In my opinion, this is not the most important question to be asked about the case. The fraud eventually came to light and, taking into account how sensational Schoen’s claims were, it would have been detected in any way. Science is definitely self-correcting if the claims at question are important enough.
I think the Schoen scandal poses a different and far more problematic question.
Before getting persecuted for fraud, Jan Hendrik Schoen was the embodiment of a successful scientist. He was so highly celebrated that the Max-Planck Society intended to appoint him to become the youngest director of a Max-Planck Institute ever. His work was full of sensational claims, maybe not claims that revolutionized physics but achievements that everybody predicted to be accomplished in the near future and they were all accomplished by Schoen. In 2001 alone, he published 17 papers in the journals Nature and Science, only occasionally writing technical, full papers to describe in detail what he did for fellow scientists. His research strolled along like a mystery, like a dream coming true. When Horst Ludwig Stoermer, nobel prize winner and director of Bell Labs until 1997, was confronted with the lacking reproducibility of Schoen’s work, he supposedly said: “Hendrik has magical hands!” – as if this could explain everything.
The scientist appears as a brilliant magician, magically waving his hands to achieve what the world has been waiting for. Such a character splendidly fuels the drama in a good crime story, with the criminal as a bewitching wunderkind without morale.
But is this really the character that we want to conventionalize as the prototype scientist? Why do we ignore what science really is, namely hard work, frustration, failure, and confusion?
It is the wishful thinking, the gap between ideal and reality, the masquerade in science that is impressively demonstrated by the Schoen case. And it is this wishful thinking that blinded supervisors, publishers, referees, and colleagues of Jan Hendrik Schoen and made them overlook his flaws.
Like a good crime show, the danger of getting blinded like that should haunt every scientist’s sleep, waking him up at night shivering from the fear of losing their objective judgment to a magician.
And although Eugenie Reich suggest a different interpretation of the Schoen scandal, this page-turning tension grows with every new details on poor judgment and human weakness that she provides.
— Leonie Mueck
The Schoen case has not only been widely discussed by journalists and media but is also of interest for researchers working in the field of theory of science. Prof. Dr. Gerhard Froehlich from the Johannes-Kepler-University, Linz, is one of them. His main research areas are the theory of culture and media and philosophy of science, especially scientific communication and scientific misconduct. Prof. Froehlich came to Mainz for the panel discussion “Publish or Perish…?” and the Journal of Unsolved Questions interviewed him about the Schoen scandal and the book “Plastic Fantastic” during that visit.
Interview with Prof. Froehlich
JUnQ: Almost 10 years have passed since Jan Hendrik Schoen’s fraud was discovered. What has happened in the scientific community since then to prevent fraud?
Froehlich: First of all, it is hard to consider the “scientific community” in its unity, since national styles and policies as well as the individual scientific disciplines differ greatly. In disciplines where staggering, high profile scandals occurred in the last years, some provisions are noticeable.
Regarding medical research, the institution of “honorary authorship” has been impeded. Now, when a medical article is to be published, every single contributor should be assigned to a specific contribution. In some journals, the authors even have to sign personally that they endorse the methods and outcome of the study. In the field of medicine, research registers have been implemented with the goal to prevent the disappearance of disagreeable results. In medical research, 40 to 60 percent of studies never get published because they fail to produce the desired outcome. Unfortunately, these research registers are still far from listing all studies and all important details of the covered studies.
In other areas, where the public is less interested in reliable results, provisions against plagiarism, fraud, and deception are still rather lax. This starts with the lack of any legal basis to penalize cheating during exams in Austria and ends with missing declarations under penalty of perjury – for example in case of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and the Bayreuth affair.
JUnQ: Eugenie Samuel Reich frames her account of the Schoen scandal with the question if the Schoen case is an example of functioning self correction mechanisms in science – or if it is an example for the opposite. What is your opinion?
Froehlich: Self control mechanisms are a myth in science to avoid any serious external control.
I have studied all fraud affairs precisely and in almost every case anonymous allegations coupled with mass media outrage – in most recent years with an interim period of outrage on the internet – were necessary before the institutions themselves agreed to take action. In the US, the first serious sanctions against scientific fraud were imposed from from politics against the grim resistance of scientists. The role of a certain Albert Gore should not be forgotten.
JUnQ: Why could Schoen publish fake data for such a long time? Which protagonists failed to notice?
Froehlich: Science and its sponsors, media and politics, everybody wants heros, “Uebermenschen”. The lion’s share of uncovered scientific cheaters were supermen or superwomen, shooting stars in their field, decorated with honors and predicted to win the Nobel Prize.
In every case, though, an elderly gentleman held his protective hand over them to award them an official seal of scientific credibility.
With Schoen it was Batlogg, in the Korean clone scandal it was US scientist Schatten, in the German cancer research scandal it was Mertelsmann. Not one of them was subject to prosecution after the fraud had been detected, although they were co-authors and, in case of Batlogg, even corresponding authors on a long list of falsified studies. A long publication list is well known to be hard cash in science, therefore the senior mentors’ heavily profited from the falsifications.
Besides the mentors, project managers, and research institutions, the scientific journals malfunctioned, of course, especially Science and Nature, journals with a general scope. Generally, peer-reviewed journals are a bit dishonest: In the past they claimed that they hardly encountered any fraud, plagiarism, and deception because their reviewing system worked so well. Now, after countless cases of fraud, they claim that peer reviewing and the journal business have never been responsible to detect and avoid scientific misconduct.
JUnQ: Eugenie Reich’s book heavily focuses on the figure Schoen as the criminal and mastermind. She portrays the institutions and the scientific community as the protagonists that could not prevent the fraud. Do you think that this perception does justice to the case?
Froehlich: Personalising and scandalizing have always been a strategy to acquit science from structural failures, attributing all problems to the criminal actions of individual delinquents. They are put forward as scapegoats to clear science. Mrs. Reich’s personalized and scandalized perception of the case relies on second-hand statements about conversations, impressions, and events 10 or 20 years ago. She claims that her interview partners remembered everything correctly but I highly doubt their statements. In the retrospective it is always easy to reinterpret events in a way that put the blame on one individual only.
JUnQ: In her book, Eugenie Reich quotes a whistleblower, who accused colleagues of scientific misconduct. He states that after his allegation of the fraud he wanted to stay anonymous for the rest of his life “like a rape victim”. Why do accusations weigh so heavily on whistleblowers?
Froehlich: As a matter of fact, the protection of whistleblowers still is not nearly sufficient yet. Reviewers are allowed to remain anonymous, but activists in the German plagiarism wikis are attacked because they don’t reveal their identity. Peer Review is anononymous, too – but almost nobody is critizising the arcane practices of scientific funds and journals. Together with two colleagues, I founded the “Initiative for Transparency in Science” in Austria in order to enhance scientific ethos in Austria, which was a cause for aggressive anonymous mail addressed to me.
JUnQ: The Schoen scandal caused a big outrage in the scientific world. But what about the small data embellishments and the day-to-day inaccuracies in the lab? Are we doing enough to prevent fraud at its early stage?
Froehlich: Science will never be completely faultless. There will always be fraud, deception, and plagiarism. But individual states, research institutions, scientific associations, scientific journals, and so forth, should have the power to make more effective provisions. Tighter legal arrangements would also be necessary. I think it is outrageous that ghostwriter offices can freely prosper without the possibility to prosecute them legally. One of the bigger ones praises itself with the authorship of 5000 projects in the German speaking countries in the last seven years. All beneficiaries of falsifications should be held accountable for the misconduct and should return their gains. These could be invested in a trust for the detection of falsifications, because sometimes only a few thousand Euros are lacking for the prosecution in certain cases.
In Germany there is an additional overcast perception of “scientific freedom”. For example, a scientist from Giessen successfully went to court against the appointment of a commission investigating possible scientific misconduct in his lab. He won the case with the argument of “scientific freedom”.
Another aspect, that some publishers probably are not so happy about, is Open Access, meaning the barrier-free access to all scientific publications and data. Without this the “collective intelligence” of all scientists and journalists does not have any effect. As long as publications are subject to so many legal stipulations that they can neither be handled nor analyzed by search engines, scientific misconduct will keep on prospering.
Froehlich, Gerhard (2003): Visuelles in der wissenschaftliche Kommunikation – z.B. Betrug und Faelschung”. European Journal for Semiotic Studies 15 (2-4), 627-655 (Themenheft “Iconicity”, hg. v. Jeff Bernard & Gloria Withalm)
Lan ChengInstitute of Physical Chemistry, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Staudinger Weg 9, D-55128 Mainz, Germany Journal of Unsolved Questions, 1, 2, Open Questions, 12-15, 2011 (Received July 18th 2011, accepted July 20th 2011, published July 23rd 2011)
Go (’weiqi’ in Chinese and ’igo’ in Japanese)  is an ancient board game originating from China that has been widely played in east Asia. Nowadays Go is being more and more popular throughout the world. In contrast to many other strategic games including chess that have been con- quered by modern computers many years ago, Go remains a formidable challenge to artificial intelligence  due to the enormous branching factors of the game tree and, perhaps more importantly, the lack of proper evaluation criteria…Read more: Is Computer Go Solvable?
Keywords: Go, branching factors, artifical intelligence
Wolter Seuntjens, Karolina HansenDutch Academy of ’Pataphysics, Amsterdam, Netherlands Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany Journal of Unsolved Questions, 1, 2, Open Questions, 15-16, 2011 (Received July 19th 2011, accepted July 21st 2011, published July 23rd 2011)
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. There is controversy over the question whether animals other than humans have a ToM. The question is important when assessing the status of humans within the animal kingdom. The social tool of faked orgasm seems to be unique to human beings and thus it is a strong test for the demarcation of human versus animal…Read more: Do Female Bonobos Fake Orgasm?
Keywords: Theory of Mind, deception, orgasm, bonobo
Leonie Anna Mueck and Johannes HeymerInstitute of Physical Chemistry, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Staudinger Weg 9, D-55128 Mainz, Germany Eberhard Karls University, Tuebingen Journal of Unsolved Questions, 1, 2, Open Questions, 10-12, 2011 (Received June 25th 2011, accepted July 14th 2011, published July 18th 2011)
“That for which nearly a year had been Vrosnky’s sole and exclusive desire , supplanting all his former desire: That for which Anna had been impossible, dreadful, but all the more betwiching dream of happiness, had come to pass. Pale, with trembling lower jaw, he stood over her, entreating her to be calm, himself not knowing how nor why. … `It’s all over?, she said. `I have nothing but you left. Remember that.?”
Anna Karenina is one of the most prominent and at the same time most tragic adulterers in world literature. What begins as passionate but forbidden love between her and Alexey Vronsky leads to years of ostracism and finally reaches its climax in Anna Karenina’s suicide. In the above scene, where the sexual aspect of their relationship cannot be overlooked, Anna Karenina already foretells her fate: “It’s all over”.
The novel is a grand example of how individuals are torn apart between the social imperative of monogamy and their intrinsic passions. Monogamy is indeed a puzzling social construct, since there seem to be two incompatible souls in us: Our wish for intimacy, consistency, and security on the one hand and our adventurous desires on the other. Some scientists interpret these two souls in a way that suggests that our own evolutionary biology is in conflict with norms and imperatives imposed on us by society and culture. […]Read more: What is the role of Epidemiological Factors in Shaping the Social Imperative of Monogamy?
Keywords: Epidemiology, History of Sexuality
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 1, 2, Articles 13-18, 2011 (Received June 11th, accepted June 30th, published online July 9th 2011)
We present the Fermionic Shadow Wave Function in the context of variational quantum Monte Carlo for disordered systems. Using the example of liquid 3He it is demonstrated that this allows for very accurate calculations, but due to its sign problem only for small systems. For this reason two novel methods are proposed that in principle solve the associated sign problem, but do not allow for realistic simulations yet.Read more: On the Fermionic Shadow Wave Function and novel attempts to solve its sign problem
Keywords: Fermionic Shadow Wave Function, Variational Monte Carlo
When: 10.15 a.m. Where: University of Mainz, Philosophicum, Jakob-Welder-Weg 18, Auditorium P4
Interview with Prof. Hunklinger
In 1997, one of the biggest cases of scientific misconduct in the history of medicine was detected. Eberhard Hildt, co-worker of the esteemed cancer researchers Friedhelm Hermann and Marion Brach, turned to his former Ph. D. advisor Peter Hans Hofschneider asking for help. He had noted obvious irregularities in his new lab that could only be due to fraudulent behaviour. At the end, it turned out that in 94 publications Hermann and Brach had committed forgery.
As a reaction to the scandal, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft issued a commission on professional self regulation in science. The commission’s recommendations included establishing a team of ombudsmen for science, to whom scientists can turn in case they observe scientific misconduct. One of them is Siegfried Hunklinger. Being a former professor for physics at Karl-Ruprecht University, Heidelberg, he held the office of an ombudsman from 2005 until May 2011. In May, he was succeeded by Katharina Al-Shamery, professor for chemistry at the Carl-von-Ossietzky University in Oldenburg. More information about the ombudsman can be found at http://www.ombudsman-fuer-die-wissenschaft.de/
During his visit in Mainz, we talked to Prof. Hunklinger about his work as an ombudsman and about recent developments in scientific conduct.
JUnQ: Professor Hunklinger, you are Ombudsman for Science. What does an Ombudsman do?
Hunklinger: Scientists may contact the Ombudsman if they are involved in a dispute con- cerning good scientific practice. When someone comes to us with a problem, we try to do justice to both sides. We do not judge, instead we mediate.
JUnQ: Can you give an example on how you mediate?
Hunklinger: First, we ask the whistleblower, who contacted us with a complaint, to describe the issue in written form. This already helps us to understand what the issue is about. However, there is always an opposite party, the accused person, whom we also interview. The truth often lies between both views. Usually, we can solve many problems on the basis of the two written statements because we understand what the problem is and on whom to put the bigger portion of the blame, if it is even appropriate to speak of blame. Next, we propose a solution. For instance, if the authorship of a publication is controversial, one can add further authors or change the acknowledgment. In many cases, an agreement is achieved in this way. If this does not work, we summon both parties to a hearing. Sometimes it helps just to talk to each other. This kind of mediation also often leads to an agreement. The third case is the most unpleasant: Data are evidently counterfeited or manipulated. This is beyond our means. We will inform the appropriate institutions, for example the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft or the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. These institutions are in charge of imposing sanctions, we only mediate.
JUnQ: How many cases are there per year and of what kind are they?
Hunklinger: There are approximately 50 to 60 cases per year. Most of them concern dis- putes over the authorship of publications. Besides that, there are plagiarism allegations, counterfeits, and disputes with journal publishers. Mobbing is noteworthy as well. Higher positions often put pressure on people that are not liked for any reasons. This can cause severe misconduct.
JUnQ: If one looks at the great scientific scandals like the ones involving Jan-Hendrik Schoen and Hwang Woo-suk, one question comes to the mind: Why do scientists do this and what drives them? Do you have an answer to this question?
Hunklinger: No, actually not. Concerning Schoen, I can understand him a little bit. He was at the beginning of his career and wanted to reach the top. The path he pursued was fantastic. If people had not realized the fraud, he would have become director of a Max-Planck institute and things would have turned out well for him. Concerning Hwang, I do not understand him. He was a well-recognized scientist and did great things. For example, he cloned dogs and he did excellent science after the scandal. It is incomprehensible to me why he faked results in the meantime. The pursuit of becoming famous cannot be the reason as he was already famous. Maybe I lack the right mindset to understand this case.
JUnQ: What are appropriate means to prevent such cases of fraud?
Hunklinger: We are not able to make it impossible, this is hopeless. However, we can improve the system if young scientists resist fraud and if they do something against it. For example, they should contact an ombudsperson to get advice. This does not have to be the Ombudsman for Science, there are also local ombudspersons.
JUnQ: Do you think that the self-control mechanisms in science are sufficient to unveil fraud in its early stages?
Hunklinger: I do not consider them to be sufficient. There will always be scandals, we cannot completely avoid them. But I neither consider external control mechanisms helpful, scientists are normal people.
JUnQ: Science is much more regulated compared to 50 years ago. People often regret that scientific freedom is curtailed and that scientists spend a lot of time doing administrational work. Do you think there is a connection to scientific misconduct? Is there too much regulation and not too little? Hunklinger: I’d like to agree, science was much freer 50 years ago. There was no pressure to publish as many articles as today. It was not necessary to create a publication out of every tiny result. This benefited science and we should try to get back to that state. But it is a long way.
JUnQ: There are public efforts to measure the quality of research and make research trans- parent to society. Hirsch indices and impact factors are often employed for that purpose.
Do you think there is another way?
Hunklinger: To be honest, I have a low opinion of these measuring numbers. Things may have changed, but in my days, the situation was as follows: When someone was appointed to a professorship, everybody knew that this was a good man without checking indices that have a random nature. In my opinion, the important thing is to talk to the people concerned. This will lead to reasonable decisions.
JUnQ: Professor Hunklinger, we thank you for the interview.
U.B. Lushchyk, V.V. Novytskyy
Clinical Hospital “Feofaniya” and Institutes for Mathematics of NAS of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 1, 2, Open Questions, 8-9, 2011 (Received March 29th 2011, published online May 8th 2011)
The cardiovascular system (CVS) is an essential component in human health, as the background level of functioning of nearly all organs and systems depends on the blood supply level. It is of a very complicated dynamic mechanism by a type of the closed system of connecting vessels with variable parameters in all its structural segments – heart, vascular walls, as well as intravascular fluid – blood.
Keywords: cardiovascular system, cardiovascular diseases, hydrohemodynamic laws, Non-Newton liquid