Review of Fraud in the Lab by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis
JORIS VAN HEIJNINGEN
Everyone has heard a story of fraud. Perhaps at a distance on the news, perhaps a legendary story swept under the rug at their university, or perhaps closer by: someone in their department—or someone in their group even—bending the rules just a bit to get ahead. Science and scientists are bound by a tacit oath to each other to do science the right way. No fraudulent behaviour, just science. Doing experiments, gathering data, using all the data to truly see if some hypothesis holds, and if it does not, that is also a result worth sharing. However, more and more we see our tacit oaths sometimes being broken on various scales to get ahead of colleagues, who are (too) often seen as competitors in a world with more and more pressure. Publish or perish is something you did not hear much several decades ago. Now, some feel it is all too serious and worthy of committing the sin of all scientific sins for: fraud in the lab.
The book is written by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis, a French biologist and historian, and the book builds a patient case on all the different aspects of fraud in science. Why do we do it, who did it, how did they do it? The author has an example for each and every aspect of fraud. Of course, many aspects come from his field of biology or closely related fields. Some examples, such as the infamous Stapel case, are from different fields. Broadly covered in the news in my home country, The Netherlands, this example is about a nationally popular psychologist who managed to statistically confirm hypotheses like “eating red meat makes people more aggressive”. In the end all his data was fudged or incomplete with data that did not agree with the goal hypotheses omitted in the analysis. It is a story about people less senior than the perpetrator stepping up at some point. The reader is naturally questioning many times throughout the book: what would I do in such situation. There are also many examples of whistle blowers whose careers were ruined by perpetrators with better networks or smoother talking than them.
In this 224 page exposé, the reader is taken through the many different facets and forms of fraud in academe. From the less severe self-plagiarism to outright fabrication of results out of thin air, many different angles towards fraud are presented. The underlying motives for scientist feel all too real: pressure to publish, getting ahead of others, etc. However, some examples show that some scientists are just narcissistic and self-aggrandising.
Some pressures on scientists are avoidable, such as the high-level of competition for funding schemes, which brings about a culture where high risks are taken. Scientists and funding agencies are not the only ones to blame for this culture. Journals are also culpable. They want that one article that provides that sexy result which will get lots of citations. The highest impact journals are particularly driven by these considerations and many examples of retractions are given in the book. The fanfare with which these fraudulent articles are published is usually far beyond the small communication of a retraction provided after fraud was established. Open source “pay to play” journals can be even worse. As authors have to pay to get published, many journals want quantity rather than quality as every publication means cash. Chevassus-au-Louis provides a number of funny examples of what you can get published in these kinds of outlets, which offers some light relief from this difficult subject.
Many examples are also provided where co-authors find themselves in a position where they feel they have to snitch on their (usually) superior partners. What would you do in that situation? Do you just get your name off the manuscript, or do you report your boss? The boss has a better network than you and is often already tenured whereas you don’t want to stain your postdoc or PhD. Do you stay silent to avoid ruining your career? Huge pressures on young people do not always bring about the right choices.
I think it is very helpful for any scientist to get acquainted with all these different aspects of fraud, and for non-scientists this book provides a window into the pressured environment that is contemporary science research. This book will help you to think about how to act when fraud happens in your circles. Also, it will help you form an opinion of what needs to change. The book gives concluding advice on how we all should move to “slow science”. What that is and why it would be good, I don’t want to give away now. You will have to read it for yourself. I can say that I learned a new word: HARKing. Hypothesizing After Results are Known. I should remember that one for my next research project…
Fraud in the Lab by Nicolas Chevassus-au-Louis. Translated by Nicholas Elliott. Harvard University Press. 2019. 224 pp.