Speaker: Wilfred van der Wiel (University of Twente) and Derek Stein (Brown University)
Subject: Fraud in science – not in your group?
Location: Auditorium TU Delft
Date: Thursday, September 8, 12:00-13:25
Fraud in science is a topic that is not discussed freely and frequently among scientists. On the contrary, it is a discussion that is often avoided. With their intensions pure, no researcher can imagine their colleagues fabricating or manipulating data. Unfortunately, it is a phenomenon that does occur, as Derek Stein Wilfred van der Wiel learned the hard way. These former members of the Kavli Institute were both confronted with students committing fraud under their supervision. During the Kavli Day, they told their respective stories, shining light on a sensitive yet important subject.
Derek Stein has his own lab in the Brown University, with a research interest in nanofluidics. In the research, long charged molecules (like DNA), were passed through tiny channels that were also charged. The behavior of the molecules was characterized and the results were published. After questions in the field regarding the fitting of some data, discrepancies came to light. As a result, Stein tried to reproduce the analysis but kept getting different fits of the data than the student. As suspicion arose, an investigation was launched and it was indeed proven that the student had manipulated data. Having sorted out this nightmare, a next disappointment came when another long-term trusted student also committed fraud. Besides having to battle the denial of the student in question, Stein also stumbled upon unwillingness of the university to retract the diploma, presumably out of fear for bad publicity and lawsuits.
Wilfred van der Wiel had a similar experience with a student working on natural crystallites that form 1 nm wide channels. These nanochannels were loaded with a dye and studied. After publishing in Science, successive experiments by a new student did not reproduce the results. At the same time, a collaborator had moved, which delayed the process of finding the source of the discrepancy. In addition, it was very difficult to get in touch with the student, who had left the country and made up numerous excuses. The subsequent investigation uncovered that the data leading to the figures was a mix and match of acquired data taken under different experimental conditions. Also in this case the paper was retracted.
From these two stories we learn that fraud in science is something to be aware of. It is good to check and verify data and to be alert at all times. On the other hand, we must not become paranoid, as a researcher simply cannot always look over the shoulder of lab members. We need to further explore and discuss these topics if we want to find a workable solution.