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Meet the science fraud squad

The first paper I published when I became a biologist was in the prestigious journal Nature, but it was completely wrong. I had used an unreliable technique to check the acidity of the chemical agent that I was adding to my sea-urchin eggs. I was devastated when I detected the error the following year and realised that my results were nonsense. I published a retraction as soon as possible but it still got into text books. But all that was long ago and my paper, like thousands of others, is confined to oblivion.

I am not alone in publishing results that turn out to be wrong. It happens all the time, not only among lowly biologists, but even among the high priests of particle physics. It is in the very nature of science that there is error which is gradually corrected by the community. Any paper that makes a significant contribution will be checked by others when they make use of the results and it is rare in the extreme for one set of results to dominate a field. Science progresses slowly by a curious remodelling of knowledge. While error can be disruptive in the short run, in the long term it is irrelevant.

Yet fraud is shocking, it is a betrayal of trust. Scientists operate under an unwritten injunction to be truthful and fair, but the United States Department of Health has considered it necessary to make this explicit because the scientific community may well have been too reluctant to deal with fraud and tended to bury it where possible.

It can be traumatic for a member of a group or the head of a laboratory to discover fraud committed by a colleague. They just do not have the experience or structure to know how to handle it. But nor does anyone else as the recent famous case of the Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, which got seriously out of hand, would suggest. After 10 years, during which he and a colleague were repeatedly accused of presenting fraudulent material in a paper, and numerous investigations, which even included the attentions of the secret service, they have now been exonerated.

Last year the British Library published a report on Scientific Deception which takes a very different view. It claims that there is a declining respect for science because of both its fallibility and the presentation by scientists of conflicting ideas, and that scientific "truth" is almost always qualified in some way. There are two responses that should be considered. Firstly one should enjoy the irony that the report gives no real foundation for the idea that there's a declining respect for science and, if its claims were in a scientific paper could even be construed as deception. Secondly it fails to recognise that such debates are the healthiest aspect of science's co-operative nature. There is little dispute about the core of scientific knowledge. I am confident that most of chemistry is right. Argument is at the advancing frontiers. Nevertheless fraud does undermine public confidence.

The report reviews the literature on fraud and I counted fewer than 50 cases. In terms of the hundreds of thousands of scientific publications this would suggest that fraud is rare.

Why, if fraud is so easy to detect when the results are important, does anyone indulge in it? Two possible reasons are ambition and over-confidence. In the case that I know best, the research worker already had an international reputation. However, he was so sure that the experiments would work, that he invented, or even imagined, the results.

But there is a more insidious aspect of scientific reporting, the massaging of results to fit one's theories. In a very famous case a Nobel Laureate's notes were analysed and it was found that he had discarded results he did not like. He was right, but was he wrong not to report the anomalous results?

Deception and fraud in science are unforgivable. However, like adulterous vicars, it should not make one think (mixing metaphors) that one bottle of corked wine means that you should throw out all of the vintage.