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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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September 25, 2009

Faked Data at the ETH

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Posted by Derek

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 Here's one of the papers, which has now been retracted.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.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side


COMMENTS

1. Sleepless in SSF on September 25, 2009 9:26 AM writes...

I'm curious to see how many of Derek's readers have personally run across similar situations. When I was in grad school, a friend and I became aware that one of his labmates was fabricating data pretty egregiously. We worked hard to get him thrown out of the program. In the end, none of his fabricated data was used but annoyingly he did end up with his PhD. I haven't kept track of what happened to him (this was 20 years ago), but I hope he had a rough go of it without references from his professor or other members of the department.

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2. milkshake on September 25, 2009 9:36 AM writes...

a familiar story - let me guess: a demanding boss, a student who found out how to go about pleasing his advisor (by generating lots of positive data), which apparently sometimes involves tidying up the measurements, only just a little for the publication purpose, and no-one minds him doing that as long as the good results keep coming and he knows what he is doing and he knows what the data "really" should have been (= getting values which is coincidentally very close to the expectations of the boss.)

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3. Sleepless in SSF on September 25, 2009 10:00 AM writes...

@milkshake: Actually, no. Lazy SOB who wouldn't do lab work and discovered he could fake spectra and backdate instrument output to make it appear that he had done work that had never been done. His boss was innocent -- and horrified; he couldn't imagine how he had every let the POS into his group.

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4. Hap on September 25, 2009 10:01 AM writes...

Hey! No fair skipping to the end.

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5. Petros on September 25, 2009 10:06 AM writes...

That reminds me of a saga that led to the industry trying to replicate some published data which appeared to show that it was possible to obtain early and late phase responses to allergen challenge in guinea pigs as is seen in man.

The general consensus of those who tried to replicate the data was that the scientist involved had generated data by tweaking the gain on the amplifiers to apparently generating the reported response.

This work was also froma reputable group but despite it being accepted as unreproducible it was , as far as I know, never retracted.

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6. Hap on September 25, 2009 10:11 AM writes...

I'm sure the student's employers must be proud. Too bad he couldn't get together with Schon.

I could see professors being demanding, but I didn't thing phys. org. chemistry was as competitive as drug or synthetic chemistry, and while Chen probably has some weight, I don't know how much he would have to push students in the absence of greater external pressures. It doesn't seem like an area where you can just run more reactions - the complicated apparatuses for phys chem seem like they'd be more failure-prone, and since they can probably sense stress, advisor pressure might be counterproductive.

Chen seemed like a nice guy. Sorry this had to happen to him.

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7. sigma147 on September 25, 2009 11:05 AM writes...

This type of thing isn't limited to academia; it happens in the industry as well. Witness Sequenom's prenatal Down syndrome test that was delayed because some employees "mishandled supporting study data." - http://www3.signonsandiego.com/stories/2009/apr/30/1b30sequen211844-prenatal-test-be-delayed-sequenom/

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8. Sili on September 25, 2009 1:06 PM writes...

At least the denial isn't as outright as in the Benveniste case.

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9. Jiahao Chen on September 25, 2009 1:47 PM writes...

It is not difficult to come up with a name for the student, as can be easily verified using the group's list of former members and the author names on the papers in question.

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10. KNP on September 25, 2009 1:52 PM writes...

That's why I like the Nature Magazine format where everyone lists what work they put into the paper. If I am ever so luck as to get an academic position, I think I will include that type of information in all supporting informations just to *attempt* to cover my ass from such students...

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11. anon on September 25, 2009 5:31 PM writes...

No discussion of this topic is complete (at least for organic chemists) without discussion of the CH activation projects coming out of Sames lab run by one of his more "enterprising" students...

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12. T on September 25, 2009 7:39 PM writes...

These issues rear their ugly head every now and then, but nothing seems to change all that much. The Sezen/Sames and JJ La Clair debacles all attracted a great deal of attention at their peak, but little, if anything changed as a result of them. If I recall correctly, Ms. Sezen is getting a PhD elsewhere, and JJ La Clair is still alive and well.

Recall the current JACS paper that claimed oxidation of alcohols via sodium hydride. It was sloppy chemistry that made claims that can't possibly be plausible. But, will it be retracted? Likely not.

Likely nothing of note will arise from this incident, either.

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13. startup on September 26, 2009 11:41 AM writes...

I was about to make a joke about Swiss banks when I read this:
"The Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger reports that the doctoral student has left chemical research to become a financial analyst with the bank UBS."

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14. eugene on September 26, 2009 7:13 PM writes...

"No discussion of this topic is complete (at least for organic chemists) without discussion of the CH activation projects coming out of Sames lab run by one of his more "enterprising" students..."

What about the CH activation projects coming out of the Peter Chen lab? Him and Bercaw/Labinger had a pretty big fight about a mechanism in Organometallics a few years back (back and forth letters to the editor that got nasty in places with their CH activation jargon). Now B/L have extra brownie points in the fight. Or something...

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15. dearieme on September 29, 2009 12:59 PM writes...

I can remember a bunch of research students returning to the lab after a lubricated lunch, and repeating another student's key experiment just to back up their conviction that his results were lies. But they told me only after the crook got his PhD.

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16. Evoluntary_Rich on October 7, 2009 10:10 AM writes...

Indeed the student in question has been well trained for his career in creative accounting!

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