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The most massive scientific fraud ever?

Posted in Respectful Insolence by Skepdude on March 12, 2009

Science as it is practiced today relies on a fair measure of trust. Part of the reason is that the culture of science values openness, hypothesis testing, and vigorous debate. The general assumption is that most scientists are honest and, although we all generally try to present our data in the most favorable light possible, we do not blatantly lie about it or make it up. Of course, we are also all human, and none of us is immune to the temptation to leave out that inconvenient bit of data that doesn’t fit with our hypothesis or to cherry pick the absolutely best-looking blot for use in our grant applications or scientific manuscripts. However, scientists value their reputation among other scientists, and there’s no quicker way to seriously damage one’s reputation than to engage in dodgy behavior with data, and there’s no quicker way to destroy it utterly than to “make shit up.”

True, opposing these forces are the need to “publish or perish” in order to remain funded, advance academically, and become tenured, a pressure that can be particularly intense among basic scientists, who will basically lose their jobs and very likely their academic careers if they cannot cover 50% or more of their salaries through grants. I always remember that I’m fortunate in that, even if I failed utterly to renew all my grants and burn through whatever bridge funds my university might give me, I’d be unlikely to be fired, as I could just go back to operating full time. Indeed, I’d even be likely to generate more income for my department by doing surgery than I could through research. Clinician-scientists are in general a drag on the finances of an academic department.

Despite the pressures, however, I’m still left scratching my head over this recently revealed massive scientific fraud, as reported in Anesthesiology News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. A bunch of you sent it in to me, and when that happens, I usually conclude that I’d best comment on it. First, the fraud:

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