I t is a case as egregious, and as puzzling, in its way as the case of Mr. Shinichi Fujimura, the eminent Japanese archaeologist who was found two years ago to have faked a number of key discoveries. When Mr. Fujimura could not find the prehistoric stoneware pieces he was looking for, he did the next best thing: He buried look-alike objects at various archaeological sites and then made sure he was there, along with media crews, to “unearth” them. So numerous and significant were Mr. Fujimura’s supposed finds that his colleagues used to say he had “a god’s hands.”
It was with a jolt of rueful recognition, therefore, that we read last week about the disgrace and exposure in the United States of a German physicist, said by his fellow scientists to have “magic hands.” Had Japanese heard about that tribute earlier, they might have recognized it as a sign of something seriously amiss with the work of Dr. Jan Hendrik Schoen.
Since being hired by Lucent Technologies’ Bell Laboratories in New Jersey five years earlier, Dr. Schoen had amassed a brilliant record in the cutting-edge research areas of superconductivity, molecular crystals and molecular electronics. At 31, he was already considered on track for a Nobel Prize. This was in part because of the importance of his chosen field. To simplify drastically, Dr. Schoen made his name with experiments designed to show that organic molecules, not just inorganic ones like silicon, could function as semiconductors or even superconductors. Plastic, for instance, is an organic molecule, and there are others, less familiar, that are all relatively cheap and easy to manufacture. The commercial applicability of Dr. Schoen’s experiments, in fields from computers and medicine to the supply and distribution of electric power, was obvious. If, that is, the conductivity experiments succeeded.
And therein lies the other reason for the young scientist’s renown: They did, or at least they appeared to. In literally scores of papers published in elite scientific journals like Science and Nature over the last few years, Dr. Schoen “proved” to his colleagues’ apparent satisfaction that he had taken a number of groundbreaking steps “toward the application of plastic electronics.” According to one admiring Harvard professor, “the science looked to be absolutely beautiful.”
In the light of a report released by Bell Labs on Sept. 25, “looked to be” was the right phrase. Dr. Schoen’s science looked to be sound, but it wasn’t. After a tipoff from a skeptical Bell Labs insider last spring, researchers examined the whiz-kid physicist’s published papers more closely — and made an astounding discovery. Dr. Schoen had used the same graph to accompany papers on more than a dozen different experiments: a nice, even a beautiful graph, but clearly a bogus one. All Dr. Schoen’s revolutionary results were thrown into doubt. And now the independent committee appointed by Bell Labs to investigate the matter has concluded that Dr. Schoen “engaged in scientific misconduct by falsifying and fabricating experimental data between 1998 and 2001.” A scientific career is over.
But the questions linger. Why did he do it? From a human point of view, that is the most interesting but also the least answerable piece of the puzzle. One can only speculate. Fame and glory, probably. Such motives are at least understandable. But what are we to make of the folly of the single graph, used over and over? How could Dr. Schoen have imagined he would get away with it, especially in such a conspicuous field of research? Was it laziness? Arrogance? A kind of death wish? Or was the man mildly deranged? It would take a Shakespeare to do justice to this aspect of the case.
Given that we are not Shakespeares, we are tempted to focus instead on the social implications. There has been much talk lately about violations of public trust. Politicians, doctors, corporate heads: All have been tainted by the perception that mendacity and self-interest have somehow become institutionalized. The public wonders if it possible to hold certain positions at all and retain one’s integrity. Does Dr. Schoen’s — like Mr. Fujimura’s — transgression deepen this irrational, instinctive cynicism? Of course it does, and to that extent does irreparable social damage. But what can be done about it?
Perhaps it’s best to keep the perspective simple and the remedies practical. Make peer-review requirements for publishing in scientific journals more stringent. Increase scholarly accountability. (Intriguingly, the Bell Labs report exonerated all 19 scientists who had “coauthored” Dr. Schoen’s various papers. What, exactly, did these coauthors do?) In the end, straightforward institutional safeguards are the best way of ensuring that these rare but socially corrosive incidents of scientific malfeasance remain just what they appear to be: anomalies, not warning signs.
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