biology zoology blog benno meyer scientific fraud

Scientific Fraud: is it or is it not?

With a Comment on Fluorescence & Bioluminescence

Scientists love to call their profession the most honest there is. But is that so? The claim is based on the fact that scientists are “seekers of the truth” and that a scientist who has cheated is likely to be finished, losing job and reputation (which is not the case for a second-hand car salesperson or a housing agent or the lady who sold cosmetics to my wife). Yet, again we can ask, is that so? On several occasions, I have come across statements that scientific fraud is on the rise and in some subjects like the Life Sciences has reached epidemic proportions. I used to have a colleague, who was an expert in statistical analyses, who exposed several cases in which scientists had either invented data or deliberately left out results that didn’t fit their hypotheses. That is bad and some earlier famous examples made it into the world news.

Take for instance Haruko Obokata, who in 2014 with co-authors had claimed to have found a method to make ordinary mouse spleen cells pluripotent, i.e., capable of differentiating into any tissue. Her work could not be replicated and was judged to be fraudulent. One of her co-authors committed suicide and the other, her boss, whom she claimed was instrumental in that failed research, is still in business. Or a few years before that, the shock when the highly acclaimed South Korean Hwang Woo-Suk, hero of Korean science, had to admit “irregularities” in his work on cloning human embryos, for which he obtained egg cells from his students (which was judged unethical). He was convicted for embezzlement of huge sums of money, but he did contribute significantly to the field, his lab is still running and his dog is a clone. Yet, there seems to be no country that hasn’t had its cases of fraud and academic misconduct.

In Germany, a former Federal Minister (K.T. Zu Guttenberg) was stripped of his doctorate and sacked from his post after it was revealed that most of his doctoral dissertation had been copied. Also in Germany, the promising physicist Jan Hendrik Schön, a possible contender for a Nobel prize for his “discoveries” on semi-conductors, was stripped of his PhD admitting falsifying data. However, an almost comical discovery of fraud was when a technician of Dr William Summerlin in the USA noticed that he had used a black felt pen to paint some of the fur of his white mice black. He wanted to demonstrate that he had found a way to overcome rejection when transplanting skin pieces of black mice onto those with white skin. Unsurprisingly, he lost his job. Someone who claimed that he was the discoverer of the AIDS virus was the American Robert Gallo. However, after a lengthy court case he confessed that the virus he was celebrated for to have discovered in 1984 stemmed from one, made available to him by Luc Montagnier a year earlier. One of the crassest cases of fraud is possibly that of the British researcher of twins: Sir Cyril Burt. He has been accused of not only inventing a large number of non-existent twins, but also of praising and commenting on his own studies in publications he is supposed to have written himself under a false name. What drives deliberate fraud (in contrast to careless research) is the desire for fame, to secure one’s job, and the need to obtain funds or grants, i.e. money to pay for the research.

I had to deal with someone who published an account of an apparently bioluminescent cockroach from S. America, but that insect was not luminescent at all, but fluorescent. Was this deliberate fraud and a desire to be famous or was it shoddy research? When I take my little Taiwanese torch, set it on UV and shine it on some insects or millipedes, some appear brilliantly bluishwhite. The light emitted by them is of lower energy and thus of a longer wavelength than the UV of my torch light. It is not bioluminescence. The latter would mean that the light is generated through biochemical processes by the animal itself. The fluorescence, however, which is immediate, but stops as soon as the exciting source is removed, is due to physical properties of the cuticle and the UV light shone on it. I think the luminescent cockroach ‘discovery’ was a mistake. Hopefully it taught the researcher to be more critical the next time.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2020.
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