The (not so) Schön controversy

This title may sound like the one of an episode of the famous geeky sitcom The Big Bang Theory but it is not; it is in fact a far more interesting albeit less fun debate. First of all I want to make clear this post isn’t an attempt to further bash Dr. Schön err I mean Mr. Schön (sorry, I couldn’t help it) but the entire debate raises some interesting questions, specially those regarding the recent outcome of the controversy as well as the forthcoming aftermath, that are worth asking and of course, with some luck, answering.

A little background first: Jan Hendrik Schön (Germany, 1970) got a PhD in physics at the prestigious Konstanz University in his homeland; after that he got a job as a researcher at the even more prestigious Bell Laboratories located in New Jersey USA, where he made groundbreaking discoveries on conductivity, superconductivity, organic conductors and semiconductors. Ironically enough, his conduct was his doom (Sorry again, I couldn’t help this one either. ) Between 2001 and 2002 he published more than 60 scientific papers on these topics, 15 or so of which were published in Science and Nature. Similarities in the graphs led to other scientists to believe the data could have been manipulated which turned out to be the case! Little by little, both journals Science and Nature, as well as other important journals like Physical Review and Applied Physics Letters withdrew some of his papers; others remain under further investigation for their possible withdrawal. Dr. Jan Schön eventually had to come clean and confess his lack of scientific rigor and misbehavior. This and him being fired from Bell Labs could have been the end of the story but in no way was near it. In 2004 the University of Konstanz decided to withdraw his PhD degree to which Dr. Schön appealed on the grounds that his thesis work was performed without any data manipulation or any other sort of ethical misconduct on his part;  finally today after seven years of back and forth lawsuits and appeals the state court ruled against him and the university stripped him from his degree. Dr. Schön is now Mr. Schön. Further details (since this post does not intend to be a repository of others nor to just inform you about the entire gossip) can be found in this Wikipedia article.

So what is this post about then? First of all I’d like to address the obvious questions: Was the University of Konstanz right or wrong about withdrawing his degree? Did they go too far? What are the implications for other scientists? There is still controversy among the scientific community about whether or not the University had any right to do it on the grounds of scientific misconduct on work that they did not fund nor had to do anything with. The matter is fairly obvious, the University of Konstanz does not want to be affiliated with Schön on any level since it will indirectly hurt their reputation. But is someone really thinking that this university is to blame? I hardly think so. Therefore on that side they could have let him keep his degree but on the other side one may postulate that credibility must be sustained throughout our careers just in the same way as MD’s can have their licenses revoked under malpractice. Granted, MD’s get stripped only from the right to legally exercise medicine not from their degree, meaning that in some cases they may recover that legal right instead of having to go to school all over again, although in the harshest cases this wouldn’t help either.

Definitely his conduct deserved strong actions from his employers and the scientific community, in the end almost 30 papers in very prestigious journals had to be withdrawn! He was trying to take the scientific community for a spin! And this is another thing I’m baffled about. Didn’t he ever think that such claims, such amazing claims, would attract the interest of a large number of the most prominent scientists working in the field of conductivity? As if there weren’t billions of dollars invested in those topics worldwide! If he was breaking new ground in organic superconductivity by proving some theoretical predictions, he would have gotten a Nobel prize for sure and that would have attracted a lot more people in trying to reproduce his findings in order to make their own little contributions therefrom. In fact this actually happened! Many laboratories throughout the world claimed to have failed in reproducing his results. I can only imagine those teams feeling frustrated for not being able to get the same numbers/trends in their experiments and clearly getting less and less frustrated when they found out they were not alone and that the number of their companions was growing larger. Had he published his results in some obscure, dubious-quality journal probably nobody would have ever found out, but then Lucent Technologies, the profitable company that runs Bell Labs would have not been happy in funding his research. This in turn raises yet other questions: How come nobody at Bell Labs was able to tell his results were all made up or even just tempered with? Private companies are not run as academic labs, publication of findings go through a lengthier process than in academia, which is normal since private research centers invest a lot of money in developing technologies which will generate enough profit to keep the company running and researching for as long as possible. They also have strict policies about data-recording and experiment-tracking procedures which apply to every researcher in the company; they are not subject to interpretation or to desire, they have to be followed to keep track of all the expensive research done within. The second question I got from this paragraph is about other frauds done in lesser journals which may go unnoticed because the work itself simply goes unnoticed by its own lack of merit. And from this, yet another question is raised and linked to another ongoing controversy: What is the future of peer-reviewing in journal publications? Surely no referee would have tried to reproduce his experiments and I’m sure a large number of data was requested by Nature and Science in order to deem the papers worth of being published (was his answer to this request “No problem!“?) Referees this quality were blindsided by reputations, Schön’s and Bell Lab’s; only until the final users (the readers) noticed similarities between data sets, and noise, in different experiments that the fraud rose to the surface, but noticing those similarities should have been the work of the referees! in fact that is their job! Aren’t they accountable by omission too?

This controversy is not a first, nor will it be the last. The most famous controversy of data tempering that comes to mind right now is the infamous experiment, or more accurately the infamous data selection in Robert Millikan’s experiment for measuring the charge of the electron. In this experiment only the “nicest” data points were used and although inclusion of the entire data set would have not affected the final value of the charge obtained, the statistical error would be increased to 2% instead of 0.5% as he presented it to the scientific community; a much “nicer” error. Of course I’m not trying to compare both cases which are completely apart; selecting data is not as serious as data manufacturing, but they are both just as unethical. Should have Millikan been stripped from his PhD degree and/or his Nobel Prize?

Mexico is not immune to this controversies either. In 2006 three papers authored by the famous Mexican Professor Eusebio Juaristi and his student Omar Muñoz-Muñiz in 2003, had to be withdrawn also on the grounds of irreproducibility from the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Tetrahedron and Tetrahedron Letters. There were serious errors in those papers which led to believe the student had incurred in scientific misconduct but apparently they managed to prove they were simply honest mistakes. Was Muñoz-Muñiz denied his PhD degree? No. In fact he now works as a researcher at Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico. Not a bad gig. I understand he had some problems getting into the National Researchers System which gathers us all researchers in Mexico as an independent entity at the same time that it collects data about the research done in the country. Data seems to be today’s secret word kids! Once again the whole ordeal could have been dealt with if a proper peer reviewing process had been carried out from the very start.

The conclusions: Ethical work, ethical reviews. Is it really that hard?

2011, International Year of Chemistry

About joaquinbarroso

Theoretical chemist in his early thirties, in love with life and deeply in love with his woman. I love science, baseball, literature, movies (perhaps even in that order). I'm passionate about food and lately wines have become a major hobby. In a nutshell I'm filled with regrets but also with hope, and that is called "living".

Posted on September 19, 2011, in Journals, Philosophy, Random thoughts, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I agree it wasn’t all Mr. Schön’s fault. There are many points to be analized. The first one is that why did he do it?, it would be interesting to know that, because maybe he was too clever to do it and watch the final results (positives or negatives), or maybe he was not that clever. The other one, is that one you said: why did the referees approve his work?, interesting question!, they only know why they did it (…or maybe not!). Finally, I want to end this comment by adding that I may never understand why easy things are so hard for many people!, as you said, is it really hard?

    • Indeed a nice piece of gossip, isn’t it 🙂

      Thanks for your comment and the interest you show in my class; your passion for science will sure let you go far in this business. Congratulations on finishing the undergraduate years! Enjoy it and enjoy the years to come.

      Nos vemos en clase 🙂

  2. I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

  1. Pingback: How to read (and perhaps even write) a scientific paper | Dr. Joaquin Barroso's Blog

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