Fraud in Science – for Fame or for Infamy?
You’ve been preparing for your standardised test. The SAT. IELTS.LSAT. MCAT. Gaokao. Suneung. VCAT. The day before your exam, you see a copy of the test lying open on a coffee shop table. A careless examiner left it behind. What would you do?
I expect some people choosing to see the questions ASAP, some walking away immediately, but I believe most of you would at least consider the thought of taking a peek.
It’s human nature to compete over our peers. Why wouldn’t we? For the desire of fame, ambition and success. In this competitive world, only the first get famous.
I doubt you can name a sprinter other than Usain Bolt (unless you follow athletics). Why? Because fame only goes to those who comes first.
Most people have heard of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. But what about Alfred Russel Wallace, who also worked on the theory at the same time? Darwin’s Origin of the Species led him to become the “Father of Evolution”, but Wallace, coming second, is now forever resigned as a footnote in history.
As a result, in desperate times, some scientists may resort to desperate measures to chase elusive fame.
The name Hwang Woo-suk might be foreign to you. But you’ve probably heard of stem cells and its amazing applications in treating all kinds of diseases.
In a way, cell development is just like human development. When we are a baby, our future pathways are limitless. We can be an Astronaut, a Baker, a Cancer scientist. But as we grow older, many things limit us from our dreams. When we are 20, we find out that we lack some skills to fulfil our dreams. By the time we are 40, it is already too late to change career paths and we give up on dreaming.
Like our cells, we are stuck to becoming the thing we’ve been trained to be. If you’re a muscle cell, you’re stuck to lifting weights. If you’re a heart cell, you’re stuck to beating 24/7.
Scientists have been trying to reverse the process of development in our cells. If we can reverse our cells back into their ‘baby’ or stem cell state, then we can get the freedom to develop any cell type we want. By changing their environment in which stem cells grow, we can get skeletal muscles, lung cells, nervous cells…. We can use them to heal and repair parts of our body. There are infinite applications.
By the mid-2000s, this was becoming increasingly likely. In 2004, it seemed as if Hwang made the breakthrough. He was called the “Pride of Korea”. He had found the magic potion. He could turn adult cells into baby cells. He could save humanity!
A lot of his research on stem cells was found to be fake. His human cloning experiments were found to be fraudulent. Hwang’s reputation was falling around him as his findings were rejected by other scientists.
Whatever his motive, be it for fame or for the Nobel Prize, Hwang had faked much of his research. His fraudulent behaviour wasn’t able to deceive anyone. When other scientists tried to follow his methods, none were able to replicate his results.
But at least we’re mentioning his name now.
Perhaps the only way to fame is through infamy?
Like Hwang, the path to infamy is littered with many other exciting stories of ingenuity.
A key part of science is peer-review. Peer-review is when other scientists double-check your work for errors. When submitting to journals, scientists can provide journal-editors a list of ‘recommended scientists’ to check their work.
Another scientist, Hyung-in Moon, invented fake personas in order to by-pass this process. This would allow him to double-check his own work using their imaginary identities. Unsurprisingly, reviews that were returned to the editor were brimming with praise and submitted on time.
The editor’s suspicion of these ‘recommended scientists’ rose. Why? Well, like in other fields, deadlines are rarely stuck to; Things are usually late. When the editor investigated further, he found out that these scientists didn’t exist.
Have you heard of the quote, “There’s always someone better than you?” Well, Moon was just the tip of the iceberg. While his articles were taken down, investigators dug up more cases of fraud.
An engineer named Peter Chen formulated an even more elaborate plan. Using his computer science knowledge, he developed an automatic system of generating reviews using 130 fake e-mail addresses. He was caught and all 60 of his articles were taken down in July 2014.
What they are doing is definitely wrong, but I must applaud them for their efforts.
Had these scientists spent more time doing science, rather than spending time to develop sophisticated plans to by-pass the system, maybe they could have actually done something.
Perhaps the only way to fame is through infamy?
Now the whole point of this article isn’t to convince you to distrust science. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I hope that you can see that science is based on hard rigor. There is a lot of good science research out there that have produced amazing results…like the structure of DNA, like the invention of vaccines. Fraud is only a small but significant part of the whole story.
And scientists are humans too. They are just like you and I – we’ve all had the thought of looking at that exam paper, even for just a second.
But the purpose of this article is to stimulate your innate curiosity. Be inquisitive about any field of interest, but also practice healthy skepticism.
There are many Old Wives’ Tales that are passed on from generation to generation that are stretched far from the truth. “Is it really bad to sleep with wet hair?” Keep asking and learning – that is the way forward.
And to end with some happy news. We’ve actually found the mix for the magic potion. 2 years after Hwang’s downfall, in 2006, 2 other scientists discovered the magical potion capable of reversing adult cells to stem cells.
With the right mindset and methodology, science can produce the right results. You’ve just got to keep trying.
Want to read more?
Peer-Review Fraud in Science
Piece originally submitted to Global Health Mentoring Programme Competition – Melbourne University Health Initiative.