Title lifted from a posting today on Retraction Watch.
Legal threats have closed the Science Fraud website (link on the right), which now only has a single post, stating that they are looking at figuring out a way to keep posting. I made an extensive comment at Retraction Watch, reproduced with minor changes below. My only other thought is that the comments to the effect that calling Fraud opens you up to legal threats does not really hold water here. All they did at Science Fraud was to take what was already in the public domain and make explicit what has been done to data. The rules of science are clear, what was highlighted on Science Fraud (some 300 papers in 6 months) should not be done. If it is done innocently, then featuring there is a useful reminder of what data are and a wake up call to the community. For those who are frauds, the reaction is classic: denial, fightback and then either it is all conveniently swept under the carpet or on rare occasions, there is exposure. Few, however are dealt with correctly. A recent exception is Jan Hendrick Schoen, who had his PhD rescinded.
I would note that in other fields, cheats are stripped of their medals, honours, and have to give their prize money back, though this can take a while. The cyclist Lance Armstrong is a good example.
We teach our students from day one about plagiarism of text and data and if they engage in this they lose marks for a single minor offence. A series of minor offences or a major offence results in a mark of zero and can lead to expulsion. So what is documented on Science Fraud is pretty much just that.
There may be honest mistakes, where innocence of the PI could result in, for example, a spliced blot with an original that is fine. However, people have in such instances raised the obvious question: why was the blot not run again, after all there must have been a series of technical replicates (run the same samples again), as well as biological replicates? Maybe all of these were run in the same order for a “different paper” that didn’t make it out of the hypothesis block.
So there are exceptions, but the reaction of anyone whose work has been posted in Science Fraud should surely be one of embarrassment followed by a search through the data archives and the issuing of a correction, e.g., original, full image of the blots with no adjustment or analogous raw data. Then all is clear.
The reaction of fraudsters is different. Sir Walter Scott put it nicely “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive!” Once in, I suspect it is difficult to get out. Life is pretty easy, hypotheses pan out just fine, so you don’t have to think much, the papers roll out, the grants in and there isn’t too much work to do. If you look at the Melendez oeuvre, there are not that many experiments. So plenty of time to go out and play, rather than sticking in the lab trying to figure out a way forward with graduate students and postdocs that meets the sometimes conflicting pressures of the PIs ambitions and their futures.
Nothing wrong with sharp elbows. Calls of “artefact” or “we have not been able to reproduce this” used to happen at question time at meetings. Somehow, meetings have become more docile, so sites such as Science Fraud replace this necessary questioning.
For those who still cringe at sites such as Science Fraud, never forget that without direct questioning of the evidence, there is no science and Universities do no research, but merely engage in rote learning of what will be a stale and corrupt liturgy. You may wish to work there, I do not and will not.
Finally, for those who have publicly supported Science Fraud and similar sites in the past, remember the numbers.
(1) A very small number of papers are retracted very year. Though this number should certainly be higher, it will remain pretty low. Most of our colleagues are extremely honest and quite shocked that anyone would engage in fraud, to the extent that one might accuse them of an innocence/optimism on a par with Candide’s. The world is a better place for that.
(2) Very few people are willing to stick their head above the parapet and be critical, anonymously or openly. It does annoy people and can seriously harm your future. The PI’s institution, journal editors and funding agencies would generally not wish to get involved and would prefer to keep a lid on things. Extra work, bad for image and so on. So we have public statements, which are generally at some variance with day-to-day operations. One only has to look at the recent post on Retraction Watch (December 20) on Nature’s Richard van Noorden’s critique of the enquiries into Melendez at NUS, the University of Glasgow and the University of Liverpool. His robust and critical stance is at odds with some rather weak and obscure retraction notices from NPG that have featured on Retraction Watch.