violating the “codex of science”?

I just finished reading this editorial from Thomas Lüscher, published in European Heart Journal, for which he serves as Editor-In-Chief.  For most folks who happen upon my website, the main details of this article may not be of particular interest, as the apparent driver for writing it comes from two recent notable cases of fraud and/or misconduct in cardiovascular medicine (see these links for additional info on Polderman and Matsubara, the two main topics of discussion).  Larry Husten over at Forbes has also written about the editorial from the cardiology point of view.

Anyway, why did I feel compelled to write about this? Well, one particular passage in the editorial bothered me more than a little bit, and I thought I would use my blog to vent. The passage under the heading “The pattern of fraud” is as follows:

“The fraudulent scientist is typically a highly ambitious and talented post-doctoral fellow or assistant professor, charming, sometimes even charismatic, with a brilliant intellect and an impressive publication record. Usually, he or she – based on his or her remarkable achievements – has been highly recommended to a prolific lab at a prestigious institution led by a well-known mentor. The atmosphere of such labs is highly competitive: positive results, if not breakthroughs, are expected. To fulfil such expectations, fraudulent scientists exhibit a remarkable, if not unusual productivity, and have typically published >100 papers at a young age. Often, their papers are full of guest authors, preferably notable scientists, a strategy used to give credibility to their paper. “

Now, those who know me well and have discussed fraud with me personally will know that I agree that the conditions and pressures described above represent those that may lead to fraudulent behavior. However, I find it frustrating that Lüscher chose to word the passage in this way: “The fraudulent scientist is typically…”. Coming from such an eminent scientist/clinician in a position of authority, the passage certainly reads as if it were information pulled from a large-scale scientific study of fraud in science and/or medicine. The use of semi-quantitative metrics (“>100 papers at a young age”) further serves to give an air of authority to the article. However, no such citations are given, and to my knowledge, there are no scholarly works that serve to precisely profile a fraudster in this way. We are certainly aware of the anecdotes and case studies, which I will admit could be used to paint a picture similar to the profile described above. That profile, unfortunately, points a damning finger directly at many smart and ambitious, yet talented and ethical scientists, while ignoring the fact that fraud is frequently committed by folks who do not match that profile in any way, shape, or form. I frankly fail to see what Lüscher gained or how the editorial benefited from his characterization. In my opinion, it only weakens his standing as an editor, since it suggests a strong bias on his part against certain members of the scientific community. Yes, as editors we need to use our experience and intuition at times to dig deeply in ferreting out fraud. However, the unsubstantiated thinking in this editorial seems to be the scientific analogue to any other sort of bigotry or profiling.

Published by Andrew Lyon

Founding Dean, Fowler School of Engineering @ Chapman University. Formerly Dean of the Schmid College of Science and Technology @ Chapman.

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