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September 25, 2009
Faked Data at the ETH
A data-fabrication scandal has erupted at a place that doesn't see many of those: the ETH in Zürich. Peter Chen, a physical organic chemist there, has been dealing with problems with some earlier publications (from 2000) on the spectra and ionization energies of carbon radicals. Here's one of the papers, which has now been retracted.
These data couldn't be reproduced, as became clear in the years after these papers came out. An investigation by the ETH showed what appears to be clear evidence of fakery - things like the background noise being exactly the same in what are supposed to be several different experimental spectra of different species. In fact, all the parties involved with the suspect papers agree that data have been fabricated - but none of them admit to having done it.
That's not a happy situation, is it? The official ETH news release on the topic is informative, but only up to a point. It leaves things hanging and announced that Chen is stepping down as the ETH's vice president for research. The Swiss press has picked up the story this week, though, and they're not shy about saying what the ETH doesn't seem to want to. Here's the Neue Züricher Zeitung, saying (translation mine):
The experts who have investigated the scientific fraud case at the ETH-Zürich are sure of the guilty party. Peter Chen, leader of the research group, has been clearly exonerated. . .The Commission came unanimously to the conclusion, that. . .it was likely that a former doctoral student "manipulated and fabricated" the published data. He performed most of the measurements, and could (through these machinations) have considerably shortened his work."
It also appears, if the reports I'm seeing are correct, that this person's lab notebooks have turned up missing, and are the only primary sources for the whole affair that can't be found. Lawyers representing this former student have blocked release of the entire ETH report, but it's leaked to a number of other outlets, including C&E News and Science. One way or another, the story has come out, and it's a pretty damned familiar one, too.
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