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 Some six papers that Sezen had coauthored with Columbia chemistry professor Dalibor Sames have been withdrawn by Sames because Sezen’s results could not be replicated.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.