Dark and Dirty: The Cutthroat Side of Science

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Scientists aren't perfect: For all the Dr. Jekylls, there are a few Mr. Hydes. (Image credit: Chicago : National Prtg. & Engr. Co.)

NEW YORK — Being a scientist is a noble profession, but it has its darker side. From fierce competition to plagiarism to outright scientific fraud, scientists are far from immune to the sordid.

A panel of experts discussed the slimy side of science at an event held here on April 30 at the New York Academy of Sciences and moderated by "Scientific American" Editor-in-Chief Mariette DiChristina.

Dr. Morton Meyers, professor and emeritus chairman of the department of radiology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook, recounted historical conflicts over the Nobel Prize; Harold "Skip" Garner, a professor at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, described wholesale plagiarism in scientific literature; and Dr. Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, delved into the slippery world of retracted studies. 

Scientists "are people who have ambition and envy and jealousy, just as you and I do," Meyers said at the event. It's "interesting to lift the veil on scientific discovery to trace the human elements that underlie many of these things." [7 Personality Traits You Should Change]

Battle for recognition

As most humans do, scientists seek recognition for their efforts, and nowhere are the stakes higher than for that pinnacle of scientific honor: the Nobel Prize. Meyers' new book, "Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be the First in Science" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) deals with some of the great conflicts over priority and credit in the Nobels.

One such conflict involved the inventor and biochemist Selman Waksman and his then-graduate student Albert Schatz. Waksman and Schatz were studying antibiotics found in the soil when they came across streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis. The two patented and published their research. Schatz was listed as first author on the paper but second on the patent.

Waksman was awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of streptomycin in 1952, prompting Schatz to sue Waksman for a share of the credit and the patent royalties. Schatz won a settlement, but was blacklisted from getting a job and faced major struggles for the rest of his career. [Top 10 Mad Scientists]

"Both were right, and both were wrong," Meyers said. The story illustrates the gray area of apportioning credit in a supervisor-graduate-student collaboration. But in other cases, it is more black and white who deserves the credit.

'Borrowed' work

Scientists are usually fastidious about citing their work, but sometimes the pressures to publish become too great. With success in academia tied to scientific output, it's not surprising that some researchers stray into plagiarism.

Garner found such plagiarism while developing software to search the Web for paragraphs of text in order to track down scientific studies. In doing so, he inadvertently stumbled upon a plethora of results that "were virtually identical but had author sets that were nonoverlapping," Garner said. In other words, the papers were "borrowed" and republished by other scientists without the correct attribution.

Garner ran his program on a supercomputer, comparing the texts of tens of millions of scientific articles. From the results, he created the "Déjà Vu Database," containing about 80,000 pairs of papers that were more similar than mere chance would allow. About 10 percent of these appeared to have two sets of authors, so Garner sent questionnaires to the authors, asking them to explain the duplication.

"Ninety-five percent of the original authors were unaware of being ripped off," Garner said. About one-third of the copiers said they didn't think the practice was wrong, another third apologized and the rest made excuses, such as not knowing they were an author.

Some pretty prominent people were among the copiers, including the chairman of the clinical department of a prominent university in Boston, and a former vice president of Iran, Garner said. He even received mortal threats from the Iranian VP.

Garner has developed similar technology to detect instances of fraud, such as applying for multiple grants for one study. In biomedicine, such "double-dipping" accounts for $200 million to $300 million in government spending, Garner estimated. Ultimately, Garner hopes the government will make use of this software to prevent this kind of malfeasance.

Retract that

But it doesn't always stop with copying. In some cases, individuals stray into the realm of fabrication.

The number of scientific retractions — statements that a scientific study should not have been published because its data or conclusions are erroneous, plagiarized or made up —  has been growing steadily in recent years, at a rate that outstrips the increase in studies.

Oransky and Adam Marcus, managing editor of "Anethesiology News," run a blog called Retraction Watch. They started the blog because they wanted to shine a light on retractions. Some retractions are the result of minor mistakes, but all too frequently, foul play is involved.

Some scientists are repeat offenders. Take the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who has been in the news recently for committing academic fraud in several dozen published papers.

Then there's the Japanese scientist Yoshitaka Fujii, who has had 183 papers retracted, Oransky said. Or the South Korean plant scientist Hyung-In Moon, who faked other scientists' email addresses so he could review his own papers.

It was once thought that misconduct was behind fewer than half of retractions, but it turns out to be responsible for two-thirds of them, Oransky said. The problem is compounded by the fact that retracted papers remain in scientific-article databases, so people continue to read and cite them.

In light of all these problems, science loses some of its luster. But as in any profession, it's important to remember that "scientists are humans, too," Garner said.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.