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20210307 – Fraud in the Lab



The main idea of this book is to demonstrate how fraudulent or at least misleading information about scientific research produced and distributed throughout scientific community, which has become big business fed by huge amounts of mainly government money. The science now is very prestigious and profitable area of activities that provides huge benefits both material and in form of place in pecking order of society, therefore there are of individuals who want to obtain these benefits by all means necessary.


1: Big Fraud, Little Lies
Author starts with reference to persistence of the problem going back to XIX century:” In his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, Babbage devoted a few juicy pages to distinguishing between four categories of scientific fraud:

The First is hoaxing – reporting discovery of something that really does not exist.

The Second is forging data – reporting false information about some non-repetitive event that could not be checked.

The Third – trimming experimental data, that is slightly adjusting results by removing some of outliers to obtain more clear result.

The final Fourth category cooking data: “This is an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy. One of its numerous processes is to make multitudes of observations, and out of these to select those only which agree, or very nearly agree. If a hundred observations are made, the cook must be very unlucky if he cannot pick out fifteen or twenty which will do for serving up.”

After providing this definition author presents some examples: Sir Cyril Burt in psychology, Mark Spector in biochemistry, John Darsee in medicine. Author then discusses definition of contemporary fraud: “In 2000 the US Office of Science and Technology Policy defined the breach of scientific integrity as the fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism of data (summed up by the acronym FFP), whether in the conception of research projects (particularly in the writing of grant proposals), their execution and publication, or the reviewing of articles by referees. The FFP definition of breaches of scientific integrity only applies to manipulations of experimental data. It does not deal with professional ethics. The second definition, which is often used in Europe, expands the scope of breaches of scientific integrity by including what international institutions such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development often qualify as “questionable research practices”: conflicts of interest, a selective and biased choice of data presented in articles, “ghost” authors added to a publication in which they did not participate, refusal to communicate raw experimental data to colleagues who request it, exploitation of technical personnel whose contributions are sometimes not recognized in publications, psychological harassment of students or subordinates, and failure to follow regulations on animal testing and clinical trials.”

Author also looks at frequency of the fraud in various scientific disciplines: from none in mathematics to explosion in biology, for which he provides a nice graph:

2. Serial Cheaters
Here author present some specific examples of individuals who do it again and again: Korean Cloner, Dutch Psychologist, American Neuroscientist, German Physician, and French Imposters. Author even presents record holders who had hundreds of articles retracted.

3. Storytelling and Beautification
In this chapter author discusses reasons for manipulations, which does not really amount to intentional fraud: strive to tell a good story, following intuition, even when it is not consistent with data, fudging experimental results to make them more attractive and convincing, and use of technology to make data more coherent than they really are.

4. Researching for Results
This is about the overvalued idea of statistically significant result. Here is author’s characterization:” The scientific community generally believes that a scientific result is significant if it can be calculated that there is less than one chance in twenty that it is due to chance, without truly questioning whether this practice is well founded. Scientists refer to this as probability value, or p value. Naturally, the threshold of p < 0.05 (one in twenty) is perfectly arbitrary. One could just as easily choose one in one hundred, or one in one thousand. Nonetheless, this is the accepted convention for a result to be considered worthy of interest. It should be noted that this practice automatically implies that at least one in twenty scientific studies is false or, at least, describes a phenomenon that may not be one.”

Here is nice demonstration of increasing manipulation of data depending on type of science from physics where manipulation is hard to social science where it is easy:

5. Corporate Cooking
This chapter is about Reproducibility crisis: “Between 75 and 90 percent of results published in the best journals in the field of biomedicine are not reproducible.”  Certainly in very complex experiments related to living matter it is nearly impossible to exactly recreate environment of experiment, but it is also more than probable that lots of time experiment built in such way as to provide justification for additional funding and publishing opportunities rather than to find out something about nature. Author, however, notes:” I only aim to underline that the researchers who went to the trouble of repeating experiments with surprising results were those in the private sector, rather than those at universities or public research institutes.”

6. Skewed Competition
In this chapter author discusses reasons for his findings in previous chapters:” the ever-more-frequent discovery of massive fraud in every discipline, the huge rise in the number of articles retracted in the field of biology (Chapters 1 and 2), statistical proof that results in experimental psychology are increasingly embellished (Chapter 4), and the worrisome fact that the vast majority of experiments published in biomedicine are impossible to reproduce (Chapter 5)”

He somewhat finds it in Multicentrism – competition for recognition and patents between scientific establishment of different countries, which had increased with Chinese entry into the field. It is also rushing to publish in order not to parish and get money, the situation that produced super productive scientists. Author provides an amazing example:” …the world record for scientific productivity is held by the late chemist Alan R. Katritzky. From 1953 to 2010, Katritzky coauthored 2,215 publications, or one every ten days of a long career that began in his native Great Britain and ended at the University of Florida.”

7. Stealing Authorship
Author includes here multiple methods such as Stealing, Outsourcing, and Mechanizing and provides overall picture:

8. The Funding Effect
This chapter is about various machination around public funding of science, which became the main source of prosperity for scientists. Author uses here two stories about funding: one about tobacco and another about GMO. In both cases science was subordinated to public relations to promote interest of powerful organizations – tobacco industry and anti GMO non-profits.

9. There Is No Profile
Here author discusses attempts to profile the cheaters, but had to agree that it is not really feasible and presents Martine Bungerer statement to this effect:

10. Toxic Literature

In this chapter author discusses impact of scientific fraud on literature, which he characterizes as waste, difficulty of separating “the Wheat from Chaff”, and, finally difficulties of forcing retraction of articles based on fraud and published in respected in scientific journals.

11. Clinical Trials
This chapter is about consequences of massive fraud in science. Author provides examples of deaths caused by false results from medical research, anti-vaccination movement and other cases.

12. The Jungle of Journal Publishing
Here author moves to discuss scientific publishing industry, predatory journals, concentration and outsourcing of publishing when publisher present itself as American, while it is Chinese operation.

13. Beyond Denial
Here author refer to the original flag raised about scientific fraud: “Nearly forty years ago, the American journalists William J. Broad and Nicholas Wade published Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science. Their book was the first to focus on scientific fraud; it remains one of the few to have done so. Looking back at it today provides an assessment of the evolution of responses to fraud in the last three decades. While fraud is no longer denied the way it was then, the scientific community is still powerless to halt its progress.”  Author discusses how much worse the problem became, but also show some signs of hope by discussing emerging grass root movement to uncover fraud in scientific community.

14. Scientific Crime
Here author move slightly beyond just covering the fraud by demonstrating how investigations are conducted and describing efforts to establish some formal ethic norms to prevent scientific fraud. The point here is that it is all too little and too late. So far, the only more or less serious consequences occur in situations when external funding is involved so criminal complain could be filed for misuse of funds.

15. Slow Science

In the final chapter author discusses potential measures to fight fraud: sharing of raw data from experimental research, publishing “negative” results, stop evaluating impact factor and bibliometrics for evaluation of research, and, finally, move away from paradigm of “publish or perish” to different paradigm:” publish less, publish better”. In short, author prefer science that is slower, but of better quality.


I do not think that problems described in great details in this book are scientific problems. They are generic problems of any bureaucracy: falsification of result by lower level bureaucrats to obtain more benefits from higher level bureaucrats. That in case of science lower level bureaucrats are “scientists” and higher-level bureaucrats are funding authorities does not change anything at all. Moreover, whatever parameters would be setup for evaluation: whether it is number of citations, positive referral by reviewer, or something completely different, the fraud is unavoidable. The only method that can help, at least partially, would be return to funding by individuals and groups based on their own funds, rather than by government. In this case there would be people really interested in research results being properly obtained and interpreted so they could get whatever they hope of obtaining from research whether it is satisfaction of curiosity or potentially profitable use. This approach would for sure remove any barriers to monitoring of research and access to data by independent reviewers.

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