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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fraud in a Labcoat

By Gareth Cook
The Boston Globe

MARC HAUSER has plenty of company when it comes to scientific misconduct.  (See our prior blog post.)

Hauser, you’ll recall, had built a brilliant career at Harvard. He directed a primate lab and published a long list of scientific papers on topics like the cognitive nature of morality, and the similarities between human and animal behavior. He was a popular teacher, and author of the hit book “Moral Minds.’’ And then it turned out that he was taking liberties with his scientific data. One paper was retracted, others were corrected, and, earlier this month, he left the university.

Also this month, federal authorities announced that a cancer researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine was inventing data. Two papers have been retracted. The scientist, and I use the term loosely, was shown the door.

These two cases are part of a remarkable flood of scientific retractions. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of retractions increased more than 15-fold, according to a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal. There were 22 retractions in 2001, and 339 last year, according to the Journal, over a period of time when the number of publications increased by only 44 percent.

It would seem a grim development, this sudden scourge of epic sloppiness and outright fraud in the halls of science. But it’s actually news we should all welcome: We are not witnessing an explosion of misconduct, but a new openness about it.

There are some forces, including easy access to image manipulation software like Photoshop, that are making it easier to fake results. But the problem has festered for decades, and now, finally, science is beginning to get serious about dealing with it.

The most spectacular recent case of scientific fraud came out of South Korea. In early 2004, researchers there announced that they had cloned a human cell, earning front-page headlines around the world, and tantalizing the public with the prospect of future disease treatments. Invitations to collaborate poured in from top biologists. The South Korean government ensured that the lead scientist, Hwang Woo-suk, had every resource at his disposal. He was a national hero.

The rest of story can be found here.