Horace Freeland Judson

Fraud in Science: types and perps from Newton to the present day

25 May 2007, 16:00, EMBL Large Operon

Horace Freeland Judson

So Hwang Woo Suk is in prison. Hwang was the perpetrator of the most ambitious scientific fraud to be exposed in recent years, the claim in a series of scientific papers that his laboratory, at the Seoul National University, had successfully cloned human embryonic stem cells. The claim had excited international wonder and enthusiasm, and had made him a Korean national hero, inspiring a campaign by the South Korean government to establish that country as an international center for stem-cell research. Exposure of the fraud led to his disgrace, trial and conviction on criminal charges, and a jail sentence.

With the conclusion of this sensational case, we might hopefully believe that the epidemic of fraud that threatened the fabric of the scientific enterprise in the last decade of the twentieth century has burned itself out. Certainly the intense media attention to reports of scientific fraud – in scientific journals and the general press – has died back. Yet cases of scientific fraud continue to be reported. The problem is endemic, and needs to be analyzed systematically.

First to do so was the mathematician Charles Babbage, celebrated today for his conception of a computing machine that would automate the calculation of tables of logarithms and the solution of equations in the calculus. In 1830, Babbage published a typology of types of scientific fraud. His list is still definitive. The standard typology today is called "F, F & P"- for "fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism."

Cases and accusations are many, going back to Newton, Mendel, Haeckel, Millikan, Freud, and together with the modern instances are often entertaining. Examination of them has practical importance: it yields a catalogue of warning signs and symptoms and a degree of understanding of the institutional, structural conditions that seem to engender fraud. This might be called a sociology of fraud – and has also led, importantly, to elaboration of approaches to dealing with it.

The question necessarily arises: what can be done to prevent fraud or forestall it? Here the case of Hwang Woo Suk offers some surprising insights. The exposure of Hwang's misconduct owed a lot to the Internet – and more generally the Internet as a medium of scientific publication is generating remarkable structural and cultural changes in the enterprise of the sciences, which among much else make fraud more difficult to perpetrate, easier to detect.