Jul 262011
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Professor Gerhard Froehlich (second from the right) at the Panel Discussion “Publish or Perish…?” in Mainz


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.

Further reading:

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)


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