This afternoon I sat in on a well-attended session about the greatest fraud in physics history by investigative journalist Eugenie Reich. Reich has literally written the book on Jan Hendrik Schön, a Bell Labs physicist who is believed to have fabricated data in dozens of research papers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her message in a sentence? “Don’t hate da playa, hate da game.”
I covered the Schön case when I first started at Nature in 2002. At the time, it was pretty obvious that he was literally cutting and pasting data from one paper into another. The question everyone was asking was how such a blatant fraudster could have eluded journal editors, superiors, and colleagues for years.
But Reich makes a fairly convincing case that the people who were supposed to catch Schön actually aided and abetted in his crime. The community, which dreamed of making organic transistors, was delighted by Schön’s data and gave him glowing referee reports (“PUBLISH! PLEASE!” one reviewer wrote to Science just weeks before he was caught). Bell Labs and its struggling parent company Lucent Technologies thirsted for the positive PR the 32-year-old wunderkind produced. And journals, Nature included, were more concerned with getting high-impact papers publicized than they were with technical problems pointed out by referees (it should be said that Karl Ziemelis, our chief physics editor, listened to the talk and completely disagrees with this last statement).
Reich almost went so far as to portray Schön as a victim. As a young graduate student, he cut corners to bring his results in line with conventional wisdom. As the stakes grew, the eager-to-please physicist went further and further to satisfy the peers, executives and publishers who wanted his picture-perfect data. From my own conversation with him at the time, I’m convinced that in the end, Schön had deluded even himself.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as Reich, but she did manage to convince me that he got as far as he did in part because it was in no one’s interest to see him fail. Kind of like the housing bubble of research, I suppose.
I asked Reich what reforms she thought would stop another Schön from rising to prominence. She shrugged rather hopelessly.
Credit: Bell Labs