What are honest scientists to do about a master of deception?

A new story posted at Chemical & Engineering News updates us on the fraud case of Bengü Sezen (who we discussed here, here, and here at much earlier stages of the saga).

William G. Schultz notes that documents released (PDF) by the Department of Health and Human Services (which houses the Office of Research Integrity) detail some really brazen misconduct on Sezen's part in her doctoral dissertation at Columbia University and in at least three published papers.

From the article:

The documents—an investigative report from Columbia and HHS’s subsequent oversight findings—show a massive and sustained effort by Sezen over the course of more than a decade to dope experiments, manipulate and falsify NMR and elemental analysis research data, and create fictitious people and organizations to vouch for the reproducibility of her results. ...

A notice in the Nov. 29, 2010, Federal Register states that Sezen falsified, fabricated, and plagiarized research data in three papers and in her doctoral thesis. Some six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Columbia chemistry professor Dalibor Sames have been withdrawn by Sames because Sezen’s results could not be replicated. ...

By the time Sezen received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry in 2005, under the supervision of Sames, her fraudulent activity had reached a crescendo, according to the reports. Specifically, the reports detail how Sezen logged into NMR spectrometry equipment under the name of at least one former Sames group member, then merged NMR data and used correction fluid to create fake spectra showing her desired reaction products.

Apparently, her results were not reproducible because those trying to reproduce them lacked her "hand skills" with Liquid Paper.

Needless to say, this kind of behavior is tremendously detrimental to scientific communities trying to build a body of reliable knowledge about the world. Scientists are at risk of relying on published papers that are based in wishes (and lies) rather than actual empirical evidence, which can lead them down scientific blind alleys and waste their time and money. Journal editors devoted resources to moving her (made-up) papers through peer review, and then had to devote more resources to dealing with their retractions. Columbia University and the U.S. government got to spend a bunch of money investigating Sezen's wrongdoing -- the latter expenditures unlikely to endear scientific communities to an already skeptical public. Even within the research lab where Sezen, as a grad student, was concocting her fraudulent results, her labmates apparently wasted a lot of time trying to reproduce her results, questioning their own abilities when they couldn't.

And to my eye, one of the big problems in this case is that Sezen seems to have been the kind of person who projected confidence while lying her pants off:

The documents paint a picture of Sezen as a master of deception, a woman very much at ease with manipulating colleagues and supervisors alike to hide her fraudulent activity; a practiced liar who would defend the integrity of her research results in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Columbia has moved to revoke her Ph.D.

Worse, the reports document the toll on other young scientists who worked with Sezen: “Members of the [redacted] expended considerable time attempting to reproduce Respondent’s results. The Committee found that the wasted time and effort, and the onus of not being able to reproduce the work, had a severe negative impact on the graduate careers of three (3) of those students, two of whom [redacted] were asked to leave the [redacted] and one of whom decided to leave after her second year.”

In this matter, the reports echo sources from inside the Sames lab who spoke with C&EN under conditions of anonymity when the case first became public in 2006. These sources described Sezen as Sames’ “golden child,” a brilliant student favored by a mentor who believed that her intellect and laboratory acumen provoked the envy of others in his research group. They said it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Sames retaliated when other members of his group questioned the validity of Sezen’s work.

What I find striking here is that Sezen's vigorous defense of her's own personal integrity was sufficient, at least for awhile, to convince her mentor that those questioning the results were in the wrong -- not just incompetent to reproduce the work, but jealous and looking to cause trouble. And, it's deeply disappointing that this judgment may have been connected to the departure of those fellow graduate students who raised questions from their graduate program.

How could this have been avoided?

Maybe a useful strategy would have been to treat questions about the scientific work (including its reproducibility) first and foremost as questions about the scientific work.

Getting results that others cannot reproduce is not prima facie evidence that you're a cheater-pants. It may just mean that there was something weird going on with the equipment, or the reagents, or some other component of the experimental system when you did the experiment that yielded the exciting but hard to replicate results. Or, it may mean that the folks trying to replicate the results haven't quite mastered the technique (which, in the case that they are your colleagues in the lab, could be addressed by working with them on their technique). Or, it may mean that there's some other important variable in the system that you haven't identified as important and so have not worked out (or fully described) how to control.

In this case, of course, it's looking like the main reason that Sezen's results were not reproducible was that she made them up. But casting the failure to replicate presumptively as one scientist's mad skillz and unimpeachable integrity against another's didn't help get to the bottom of the scientific facts. It made the argument personal rather than putting the scientists involved on the same team in figuring out what was really going on with the scientific systems being studied.

Of all of the Mertonian norms imputed to the Tribe of Science, organized skepticism is probably the one nearest and dearest to most scientists' basic understanding of how they get the knowledge-building job done. Figuring out what's going on with particular phenomena in the world can be hard, not least because lining up solid evidence to support your conclusions requires identifying evidence that others trying to repeat your work can reliably obtain themselves. This is more than just a matter of making sure your results are robust. Rather, you want others to be able to reproduce your work so that you know you haven't fooled yourself.

Organized skepticism, in other words, should start at home.

There is a risk of being too skeptical of your own results, and there are chances to overlook something important as noise because it doesn't fit with what you expect to observe. However, the scientist who refuses to entertain the possibility that her work could be wrong -- indeed, who regards questions about the details of her work as a personal affront -- should raise a red flag for the rest of her scientific community, no matter what her career stage or her track record of brilliance to date.

In a world where every scientist's findings are recognized as being susceptible to error, the first response to questions about findings might be to go back to the phenomena together, helping each other to locate potential sources of error and to avoid them. In such a world, the master of deception trying to ride personal reputation (or good initial impressions) to avoid scrutiny of his or her work will have a much harder time getting traction.

16 responses so far

  • You and I differ to some extent regarding the degree to which fraud has a systematically distorting effect on the scientific enterprise. That difference notwithstanding, this case is absolutely chilling, and I have no doubt that it has been hugely destructive to a number of careers.

  • Jonathan Kaplan says:

    Janet --

    Nice summary of a case I had been unfamiliar with. And kudos for your links to your earlier discussions, back when the facts at hand were not as clear! These kinds of cases are often complex, and it is valuable to see how the 'public perception' (where that perception is, in this case, an unusually careful and thoughtful one) changes over time as new facts come to light, etc.

    I tend to think that outright fraud in most of the sciences is rare, not because it would be so hard to get away with, but because it is hard to get away with in high-profile work, and fairly pointless in low-profile work. At least, that's what I hope!

    Jonathan

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Maybe I will dig into the report, but Prof. Sames is not covered in glory here. Her labmates may have questioned their abilities when not able to reproduce her work, but the most chilling part is the alleged questioning of their abilities by their supervisor.

  • David Jentsch says:

    When I was in graduate school, I was responsible for training a young 1st year graduate student - we'll call her Jane - in the methodology we used in our lab. I was struck by the difficulty she had with basic concepts, but I persisted in training her in the basics of chromatography, and how we used these methods to assess brain chemistry in the service of questions we were pursuing.

    I had a superficial sense that something was not right with her, but it was nothing I gave more than 5 min attention to at a time. I simply considered her eccentric and continued to try and train her to become a master of the required methods.

    So, you can imagine my surprise when - merely months after leaving our lab for another one - Jane was one the lam. My University had found out that she fabricated her entrance exams and qualifications and - in fact - had no bachelor's degree at all. She made her whole life up - all of it, penetrated one of the most prestigious graduate schools in the country and spent almost a year (fully funded, of course) before the Institution caught up with her.

    It wasn't the case that there were no suspicions... it's that the burden of proof necessary to take action required time to put together.

    After being caught, Jane's parents drove out from their home state to attend a hearing that was designed to allow her to repay the fellowship granted her and to walk away. She didn't show. Her parents sat in the administrator's office wondering where she was.

    Five days later, she showed up in a big box store in Ohio; she claimed she had been abducted, thrown in the trunk of her carf and raped, only to escape in Ohio. The judge did not believe her claims and jailed her.

    In jail, she violently attacked a guard, nearly putting out her eye.

    Why I tell this story is to illustrate the fact that mental illness, even quite pervasive forms of it, can go unnoticed by us for remarkably long periods of time. Jane was seriously ill. She was a cry for help in progress. We didn't see it precisely because it can be hard to identify and because we believe that it is our responsibility first and foremost to trust and nurture our trainees and students.

    In any human pursuit (whether that be science or the humanities or any blue collar job), mental illness is a complication. The irony is that - for some of us - this illness is why we are researchers. I personally study the neural bases of behavior to try and understand and solve the kind of riddle that Jane was (and, most likely, still is).

    Why did she do these things? Why was it that her brain allowed her to engage in these perverse actions that would inevitably lead to repudiation?

    The origins are in her synapses, of that I have no doubt. Unfortunately, her behavior, like that described in your story, make it difficult for the rest of us to make the progress, which requires social trust, that will ultimately solve her own problem.

    Nevertheless, for many like me, we continue to work hard on these problems in order to push forwards scientific progress FOR Jane, not in spite of her.

  • David Jentsch says:

    I should have stated it out right, but I do think it's like that many manifest forms of scientific misconduct are attributable to some form of mental illness, whether it be a clinical brain disorder (so called Axis 1 disorder, e.g., psychotic illness, mood disorder, etc.) or personality disorder (so-called Axis 2 disorder, e.g., antisocial personality disorder).

  • Matt says:

    Excellent coverage, Janet. As a chemist, I've been fascinated by this case for a very looong time. As with Pinko Punko I have always been most interested with the whistle-blowers in the lab. Getting ahead in the academic world is always a bit of a crapshoot (do you and your advisor get along, did you get a good project when you started, do the results come quickly enough to publish the 'requisite' amount). Being called on by your supervisor to reproduce old experiments (while neglecting 'your' project) is enough to stunt the growth of a scientific career. But, further criticism by your supervisor after you fail to reproduce fabricated results can destroy your career due to an awful letter from your boss. Just a tragic situation for these upright students and postdocs.

  • Unstable Isotope says:

    I feel like I'm in the minority here, but didn't the scientific process actually work? People tried to reproduce the data, but couldn't and brought it to the attention of the researchers. The part that broke down was that the researcher was believed over the people trying to reproduce the results. It's very unfortunate that three young scientists left the field over this.

    I would argue that Senzen was not a master of deception. She was a brazen deceiver, that's true but her fraud was quite easy to prove once people started looking for it.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      If we're just talking about the knowledge-building part of the scientific process (which includes identifying faulty claims and evidence and taking them out of the pool) then sure, it worked. Maybe it took some time to work, but that's science for you.

      If we're including the part of the scientific process that includes training new members of the scientific community, it's less obvious to me that we should regard this as a success story.

    • Chemjobber says:

      For the most part, I think I'd agree with your comments about brazen deceiver != master deceiver. Also, I agree with your comments re: scientific method.

      But faking spectra by using other spectra and hand-adjusting them in sounds really tough (granted, I've never tried) and something that if not for the Whiteout Spectra and all the forensic-level analysis, it would have never been caught.

      If not 'master deceiver', she sure tried hard.

  • Unstable Isotope says:

    If we're including the part of the scientific process that includes training new members of the scientific community, it's less obvious to me that we should regard this as a success story.

    Good point. There's been a lot of focus on Senzen's actions, which were terrible. There's been less scrutiny of Sames's actions. There should be more. What about the students that were dismissed? Do they get any kind of apology?

    • Matt says:

      Apology?? They deserve sooo much more than that. Livelihood in the sciences is most dependent upon a spotless academic career and a supportive boss. These students (and their careers/future livelihoods) were thrown under the bus by Sames and Columbia.

  • [...] the wake of this post that touched on recently released documents detailing investigations into Bengü Sezen's scientific [...]

  • Ed says:

    *headdesk*

    As for the mental abnormality that leads to this sort of thing, yes, it's called phsychopathy. Seriously, look it up. "Political Ponerology" is one book about it, although I don't think it is very good - a lot of questionable stuff in it. Still, it's got the right idea.

  • Ed says:

    psychopathy, whoops.

  • SB says:

    Supervisor i.e. Prof. Sames is equally responsible for this misconduct. His punishment should as be equal as Sezen. When good things happen then I am the inventor but if bad things happen then student is responsible. This concept should not be acceptable. Role of Prof. Sames is doubtful.

  • icecrmcnkd says:

    It's amazing the deception that goes on at Columbia.
    http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/ucm162944.htm