Errors, publishing, and power

3My piece in yesterday’s New York Times on errors in scientific journals lacked room to consider a key factor generating the sort of fraud that has haunted science lately: The way publishing concentrates and broadcasts not just the sort of error that John Ioannidis writes about, but power and money (its imprimatur), which can corrupt and lead to the sort of fraud Hwang indulged in.

While top researchers a couple generations ago lived modestly, today they command fat salaries and wield immense power. These perks provide extra motivation not just for cheating but for the overreaching — the half-conscious stretching of data and interpretation — that starts many episodes of fraud. As science historian Horace Freeland Judson shows in The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science (Harcourt, 2004), many fraudmeisters start fabricating to cover prior, half-innocent data tweaking.

Jan Schön and Victor Ninov, for instance — brilliant young physicists working separately at top labs — apparently truly believed, even as they moved from culling “aberrant” data to contriving fabrications, that they had made legitimate discoveries (Schön a one-molecule transistor, Ninov a new element) that needed bolstering. Exposed in 2002, Schön and Ninov insisted they never invented data. Neither denial seems credible. Yet in both an early belief in a possibility — an intense bias — that grew to overwhelm first judgment and then ethics.

Hwang’s stem-cell fraud dwarfs these episodes, of course. But it reveals a couple elements common to some of the biggest scandals of the last few years, hubris and a willingness to exploit power to create or maintain scientific triumphs that bring even more power. Journal publication gives researchers power because it seems to come from on high, bearing an authority that — as Ioannidis’s argument that most journal findings are false suggests — is illusory. The closed peer review system, with its granting of irreproachable, anonymous (rather Godlike) approval, is a key element in granting that authority — and through that authority, the power that researchers can gain through publishing. That’s one more reason some want to overhaul it.

More like this