The Alchemist

Fakes, frauds, and forgery. They’ve been around for centuries. Art by a great master proves to be a fake, or manuscripts are ‘discovered’ but no longer available for inspection. Science has had its fair share throughout the ages as well. For generations, alchemists tried to transform base metal into gold, enticing and mesmerizing people around them. In the early 20th century, anthropologists believed that Piltdown Man was the genuine article, until 1953 -- more than 40 years after the ‘discovery’ – when Piltdown Man was proved to be a composite of three different species. Most recently, Hwang Woo-Suk of South Korea falsified his lab experiments in stem cell research and dealt a severe blow to honest researchers. But those things happen only long ago and far away. Don’t they?

Eugenie Reich

On Monday, February 22, the NC State Graduate School and the Department of Physics co-hosted a talk titled “Fraud, Fabrication and Publication: A Case Study of Deception in Physics” as part of the Graduate School’s Responsible Conduct of Research seminar series. The RCR series, part of the Preparing Future Leaders initiative, brought Ms. Eugenie Reich, Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, to NC State to share the results of her investigation into the case of Jan Hendrik Schön, who deceived not only his colleagues at Bell Labs in New Jersey, but scores of others in the scientific community.

Jan Hendrik Schön received his Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Konstanz, Germany. Bell Labs in New Jersey hired him as a postdoc later that same year. Schön’s field was condensed matter physics and nanotechnology, and his research had all the indications of groundbreaking science. He claimed to have created transistors from tiny molecules that could be made to behave like semiconductors. It was a move away from silicon-based electronics and toward organic electronics. Since the organic ”chips” could supposedly shrink past the point where silicon would break down, the technology would be a phenomenal advantage to the electronics industry. Like any good alchemist, Schön mesmerized and fascinated the scientific community with the possibilities of his research. All the while, he published extensively in renowned scientific journals -- almost too extensively. Schön sometimes submitted as many as seven journal articles in a month, including submissions sent to Science and Nature.

Jan Hendrik Schön

By 2002, several physicists began to take a closer look at Schön’s research data. No one had been able to replicate the results of any of his supposedly groundbreaking experiments. Even Schön himself could not reproduce his results in front of observers. Then a few scientists noticed that in three unrelated papers, the data graphs appeared to be identical. Rumors began to circulate. Bell Labs was forced to set up a committee, chaired by Dr. Malcolm Beasley of Stanford University, which launched a full-scale investigation into Schön’s research.

The committee’s final report found serious allegations in 24 papers published by Schön and his co-authors. The committee also found data that had been manipulated or falsified in 16 of the papers -- clear evidence of scientific misconduct. Six other papers were found to be ”troubling.” According to the committee, Schön’s misconduct fell into three basic categories: substitution of data, unrealistic precision of data, and results that contradict known physics.

Schön’s co-authors were exonerated, but he was released from his job at Bell Labs. In 2004, the University of Konstanz issued a press release stating that Schön’s doctoral degree had been revoked due to ”dishonourable conduct.” Although Schön appealed the ruling, it was upheld by the University in October 2009.

His motive? No one really knows for sure, not even Eugenie Reich, after years of investigating Schön’s case. Maybe there wasn’t one. But there definitely is a moral lesson here for everyone -- researchers, mentors, publishers -- anyone who may be beguiled by an alchemist’s promise. If the science seems too good to be true, beware.

So, where is Jan Hendrik Schön today? At last report, he is working for an air conditioning company in Germany. He has been barred from working as a scientist.

Whoever is detected in a shameful fraud is ever after not believed even if they speak the truth.
(Phaedrus, Roman poet, 15 BC - 50 AD)

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